In light of the Penn State sex abuse scandal, Pennsylvania really needs to change its nickname from the Keystone State to the Child Abuser State.
The shameful moniker fits. After a decade that has already included the Archdiocese of Philadelphia priest sex abuse scandal and the Luzerne County judicial scandal featuring “kids-for-cash,” how can anyone argue that it isn’t a fitting label?
In all three instances, powerful people and powerful institutions failed to protect the most vulnerable and innocent in society: children.
In all three instances, authorities were made aware of harm or wrongdoing being committed, and did nothing.
In all three instances, people have made excuses for those in power who failed to act, either by failing to report or investigate, allegations of misconduct.
As with the previous two scandals, in the wake of the Penn State disgrace, there will be much hand-wringing and demonizing of a few, along with committees and panels appointed. Inevitably, recommendations will be made that will largely be ignored.
There will be a push to put more laws on the books and stiffen penalties, but those largely will be punitive and after the worst has already been done. We’re not hurting for prosecutors bringing high-profile cases and getting convictions. But again, that’s about seeking justice after the worst has happened, not about protecting kids in advance.
We, as a society in Pennsylvania, have failed to protect our kids.
Protecting children is not just about things like Megan’s Law. It’s having every citizen, regardless of job title or position, conditioned to understand that there is no higher duty than to protect the young.
If you see a 10-year-old boy, his little hands pressed against the wall, being anally raped in the shower, you call the cops. Not your dad or your boss. That’s, of course, if you haven’t already kicked the rapist’s ass yourself.
I apologize for using the graphic language above with regard to the one alleged attack in the Penn State debacle, but we need to confront the ugly truth here. “Sexual assault,” while hardly a cheery term, just doesn’t deliver the awful gravity that the details do.
Some will argue: “That’s Penn State, not everywhere else. That’s what happens when football coaches and jocks aren’t held accountable.”
To which my scholarly retort is: Bullshit. Look at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Luzerne disaster. Religious and legal institutions also failed to protect kids.
The Penn State scandal hit me hard last weekend, leaving me sickened and angered. My father went to Penn State, and I was raised a Penn State and Joe Paterno fan. As a kid I joked that the chain of command I was supposed to follow went God, my parents, the pope, then Joe Paterno … and actually Joe Paterno was number three.
I went to Penn State football camp every summer in high school. I met Joe several times there, and at various award banquets, and he was always charming and thoughtful, and radiated the integrity he always portrayed.
I also trained with the other high school linebackers at Penn State’s camp and met Jerry Sandusky. In hindsight, it sounds ridiculous to say this, but at the time he left a huge impression on me. He was the first good football coach I ever encountered who wasn’t a yeller and screamer, but simply a charismatic teacher. He was funny and kind and he inspired us to perform well without yelling, which was a novelty to me and others at the time.
While Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty, the evidence appears considerable. I was very unsettled this weekend to hear that a guy I grew up admiring could be accused of such horrible things. I couldn’t believe that someone like Paterno, who almost always seemed to do the right thing, could fail so miserably to take the proper moral action.
When I heard the initial reports, as appalled as I was, I was initially relieved to hear that Paterno had reported the incident to his boss. Then more details came out and I realized, regardless of the law, Paterno had failed to do the right thing.
It reminded me immediately of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s failure to address sex abuse by its priests, which resulted in not one, but two grand jury reports.
We’re all accountable to some degree, for what we’ve allowed to happen here. We have not conditioned our citizens to think of kids’ safety first, rather than protecting (or fearing) corrupt institutions.
We’re accountable because we’ve failed to create a framework in our society that supervises, monitors and serves as a check on these institutions, two of them private, that have failed to properly protect potential child victims.
We’re accountable because we haven’t made it a priority to expand the resources and budgets of our various children and youth agencies.
We’re accountable because we’ve relied too much on private charitable organizations to provide the support and services that kids need, and that aren’t required to be as open as government, nor as stringently regulated.
We’re accountable because we haven’t applied continued pressure on these institutions to follow through and clean up their acts. A second grand jury report was issued regarding the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. While steps have been taken with regard to juveniles in relation to the Luzerne County scandal, large scale reforms to the Judicial Conduct Board, which was alerted to the corruption of the ex-judges and did nothing, have collected dust. And yes, if more than a year has passed since the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice issued its recommendations and nothing has happened to either the structure or the personnel at the JCB, then it’s collecting dust.
Shame on us all.
Look, writing a bunch of new laws and regulations is easy. That’s not the heat that’s going to kill this cancer.
It goes deeper than that. It’s a cultural issue. Institutions and their leaders need to be held accountable. Almost all corruption starts with secrecy and insularity. Openness should be demanded of all our institutions. Leaders who fail to protect kids and their apologists need to be confronted and driven from their holes.
People need to understand that no individual or institution, no matter how large and powerful, comes before the needs and safety of children. Powerful people and powerful institutions are aided in their corruption when people are afraid to criticize, or worse yet, attack those who do. Good individuals and institutions can withstand criticism. Corrupt ones crumble from scrutiny.
For too long we’ve had an old-boy culture in this state that lets the powerful put their interests ahead of the greater good. That culture needs to be smashed to pieces.
Think I’m making too much of this? Then think of that scared, violated little boy getting raped in the shower by a grown man. Recognize that horror story is just the latest in a decade full of them.
Then ask yourself two questions.
Have we done enough? Have you had enough?
Hank Grezlak is the editor-in-chief of The Legal Intelligencer. He may be contacted at 215-557-2486 or by e-mail at email@example.com.