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Stumbling Upon Evil

As the Penn State scandal shows, people will react differently -- and the lesson is to remember to keep calm and maintain our rational faculties.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 9, 2011

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Stumbling Upon Evil

As of this writing, the Board of Trustees at Penn State University is appointing a committee to examine failures within the institution that seemingly allowed emeritus assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to sexually abuse young boys over a number of years.

Along with Sandusky's numerous indictments, Penn State's Athletic Director and the Vice President whose duties include overseeing the campus police are indicted for perjury for lying to the grand jury investigating the case.

Two current coaches, legendary head coach Joe Paterno and wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, are under particularly strong national criticism for failure to follow-up on one incident McQueary claims to have witnessed in 2002 while a graduate assistant (that is, not full-time) coach for the team. President Graham Spanier is also under heavy criticism.

On the face of it, things do look bad for all three men. The best each can do, for now, is take a leave of absence for the duration of the committee's investigation. This is the fairest course of action for the current members of the Penn State football team, who are chasing a Big Ten title and do not deserve the distractions regarding two of their coaches.

This is not to say any of them are guilty of moral wrongdoing for failure to follow up on McQueary's allegation. The fact is, outsiders don't know for sure whether or not Paterno or McQueary DID follow up. I read the Grand Jury report. Such questions seem to me to be out of its purview. It is fair to allow the committee's investigation to run its course before making final judgment.

But it can be noted, just from the Grand Jury report, that the train of events would have unfolded very differently if McQueary reacted the way many of us would want and expect adults to react when seeing an adult sodomize a child. McQueary was distraught by what he saw, and called his Dad for advice. The advice was to tell Paterno, which he did the next day. Paterno told the Athletic Director the day after that.

The public wants, instead, for McQueary to have physically intervened to stop the action immediately. Or, to have gone to the nearest phone, call 911 and then campus police, and then intervene.

Why didn't he?

Some have accused him of wanting to keep his job. I think its simpler than that. McQueary allegedly saw Sandusky, perhaps the most famous and respected person on campus next to Paterno himself, and who was part of the coaching staff when McQueary himself played for Penn State, do something unspeakably evil.

I think it's probable that the incident put him in a state of shock which paralyzed his rational faculties. I imagine he's regretted it ever since.

I also believe his failure may have caused a misunderstanding among Paterno and his "superiors." This is the "he said, he said" dilemma. McQueary recollects that he told Paterno of the sodomy. Paterno, and perhaps his superiors, recollect that McQueary wasn't that specific. They may have an iron-clad defense of their actions: if McQueary was certain that he was witnessing a criminal act before his very eyes, why didn't he call the police?

If McQueary really saw what he claims to have seen, then he is the victim of trauma. His victimization, of course, isn't remotely close to that of Sandusky's alleged victims. But he is a victim nonetheless. His reaction is not what we would have wanted, and if he began to think about the ramifications of calling the police on Sandusky would do to his own career, then he is certainly blameworthy. But we don't know that; he may have just been in shock.

Many of us have been in different kinds of crisis situations. In one instance, I broke up a violent domestic dispute, but there was another man backing up my intervention. In another instance, I encountered a wandering two year-old on a busy city street. That time, even though there was no physical risk, I was more unsure what to do because I feared that if I picked the boy up and take him to the nearest phone, I would be spotted by the boy's parent's and be accused of abduction myself. That situation did work out, as I was able to more of less lead the boy to a place where I could then get help.

But I have been in other situations in which someone would fly into a rage or be verbally abusive to a helpless person. No one, myself included, confronted the inexcusable behavior, too shocked or too cowardly to do so.

When suddenly confronted with evil, it is difficult to predict how anyone would react. The evil could be mild or it could be great. In this sense, I don't "blame" McQueary for failure to do the right thing upon witnessing the abuse, because I think he was too shocked and overwhelmed to think rationally. But that is itself the lesson. We should train young people, and prepare ourselves, to remember to keep our wits about us when we are suddenly confronted with a crisis.

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