Saturday, November 12, 2011

Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil* UPDATED

"I should have done more."

I profess no special knowledge of the sordid, sad, unbearably tragic events over the last several weeks at Penn State. The news accounts and talk-show discussions paint an especially disturbing portrait of a popular, talented and vile assistant preying on children. While prudence suggests a caveat - all of the individuals charged or suspected of wrongdoing are afforded the legal presumption of innocence - experience suggests more.

I worked as a child abuse detective for a short period in the mid-nineties. A temporary assignment, I got what can only be described as a chilling glimpse at the nastiness of sexual crimes against children. The offenders weren't readily identifiable (no raincoats or boxes of chocolates), were known to the victim and often justified their acts using variations of the phrase "he/she wanted it." Many of my closest friends passed through the Crimes Against Children unit, staying only long enough to gain investigative experience before accepting reassignment or promotion. The day my boss let me go back to my original gig (crimes committed by juveniles) was one of the best of my career.

Two things struck me while reading about the Penn State situation.
First, some of the alleged acts are so despicable as to be nearly beyond belief. Second, for reasons known only to them, grown men appear to have knowingly protected decades-long friendships, thereby facilitating additional crimes.

How does that happen? If you are here for answers...I have none. For more than half a century families enthusiastically entrusted their young son's to the care of Joe Paterno and his staff. The players received all of the glories available to young athletes and emerged ready to face adulthood. For most of us, the revelations of wrongdoing were a shocking juxtaposition to the appearance of not just propriety but of something good happening at Penn State.

Sports is not just a business, it is an experience by which individuals discover the depths of their own character, commitment and courage set against the competing hopes and dreams of other, similarly motivated participants. It is almost invariably inspiring, almost always unforgettable to the players.

Many years ago I was working extra duty at a high school football game. The contest was hard fought, and happened to be the last game of the season for one of the teams. Several players gathered at the end and embraced. Tears in his eyes, one of the tall, tough boys remarked to his teammates, "I can't believe this is the last fucking time we'll ever do this."

A truly amazing moment, witness to the continuing miracle of men coming of age. It could not be any different at Penn State - the struggles, sacrifices and hours of hard, physical work side by side with their best friends. Nurtured by legendary figures, taught the virtues of sportsmanship, molded into not just contributors but acolytes spreading the faith. Encouraging others to emulate them.

What a horrible end for "JoePa," his coaches and the university administrators, to strip away the facade and reveal cowardice where there should have been courage, silence in place of voices raising an alarm in angry defiance of evil. If we, as men, cannot or will not protect the weak and vulnerable even in the twilight of our lives...what do we stand for?


Penn State is a cautionary tale, a garden of good and evil where good men failed. Perhaps the legacy they leave us is how easily we can forget what makes us memorable.

UPDATE: It is possible to die of a broken heart. Just because there was more he could have done doesn't mean he could have done it. In the latter stages of a life not everything is attainable, anymore. Perhaps it was that realization, expressed as regrets by Joe in his final days, that took him from us. A good life's work may be tarnished by a bitter end, but it is never erased. Go with God, Joe. By and by the rest of us will be along.

*A non-fiction work, John Berendt, Random House, 1994


  1. What a beautiful post, Jim. You have really captured the essence of how disgusting these people are who allowed such a thing to happen. It's not worse that they didn't speak up but it almost feels that way. Who could observe such a thing and just walk out and pretend they hadn't seen it and then go on with their lives?

  2. Thank you Patti. Grown ups have a responsibility, and these guys turned their backs on it.

  3. You nailed it, Jim. I like to think other coaches would have headed out with a shotgun looking for their assistants. What has come out defies belief. To only do the hushed up minimum required in alerting the authorities, the people in the know of this horrific pedophilia broke with morality and are noticeably missing the gut-busting outrage a normal human being would have in being apprised of such behavior.

  4. Wonderful post, Jim. You are spot on. It's appalling to think that Joe Paterno never said anything and absolutely wrong that he didn't. I don't know how he lived with himself, or what excuse he made to himself to not say anything. These institutions are supposed to protect our youth, not destroy it. Sadly, it goes to show just how much we have to always be vigilant as no one in power can ever be trusted.


  5. Bernard - thank you so much! I agree with you, the minimum is never the answer when the stakes are this high. I wonder if it ever crossed any of their minds that their friend's actions were hurting so many innocents.

    Marci - as always, I'm humbled that you read this blog and thank you for the FB shout out. You're so right - the take away is to make sure we question why wrongs exist and examine our role in the solution, even when the transgressor is authority. The best thing that ever happened to law enforcement is when the Supremes decided they had had enough of our crap and started to set real limits on us.

  6. As a journalist I have to say that judging JoePa and McQueary based on what you've heard in the news is human nature yet not fair. The news never reports all the facts they have nor do they ever have all the facts. We do NOT know what happened behind the closed doors of that university. JoePa alerted his superior who said he did a "thorough investigation" and found nothing. They had an extensive meeting about it. That superior is now charged with concealment. We don't know what was said, what was threatened, WHO was threatened.

    Knowing what I know about Penn State and the legacy there is JoePa didn't overlook other broken rules for "the good of the football program". He would bench his best player knowing it might cost them the game because he got in a fight/failed a test/broke curfew/drank, etc. No ONE person was above rules. He was about teaching morals on the football field but also stressed that life doesn't begin and end on that field. Life is bigger than football is what was taught.

    If these superiors would go so far as to cover this up we don't know what else they were capable of doing. Did they threaten JoePa? His wife? His children? State College, PA is a small town and I honestly think McQweary and JoePa are the scapegoats for something that goes much deeper.

    This is a tragedy in every sense of the word for everyone involved but I think it's unfair to judge JoePa for a situation in which the honest facts will never be known to the public.

    I'm not advocating for keeping quiet at all. Should he have gone and alerted the police? Most definitely. But I don't believe it was that simple nor do I believe Joe Paterno knowing or willingly covered this up. We should focus on the man who did this and the men that have been charged with the cover up.

  7. Katy - thanks for your comment! I'm sure all of the facts aren't in, and it will be interesting to see what comes of the various investigations. Hopefully it will result in some soul searching on the part of the major college programs.

  8. Just trying to give a little perspective from someone that's followed Penn State before all of the madness. I agree there needs to be some soul searching at major universities. Between the players getting basically paid at schools like USC and Ohio recently then this cover up (whether it involves JoePa or not), there needs to be some major intervention. Large college programs are completely out of control and I don't think we've seen the last of it.

  9. Katy, your comments are always welcome! Your interest in sports, especially college sports, makes you a valuable voice in the discussion. I'm with you - here's hoping Joe Paterno's only fault, as he put it, was in not doing more. The other point - big money college sports need reform - is more a you post. You know way more about it than I do. :)

  10. Well stated. Being the man that he is, he's his harshest critic and I'm sure he kicked himself every single day for what he could've done but didn't.

    People all over the internet are saying horrible things about him and I guess that's the right to their opinion. However, on the day of his death people need to respect that he had a good heart and his family lost an integral member. Rest in peace and God be with his loved ones.

  11. I agree, Katy. Harsh words at this point just demean the source. There are valid lessons, but each of us should be looking into our own souls to see if we would measure up. This is not the time to dance on the grave of a man who - in 85 years of a life well lived - fell short once.

  12. Well written Jim. One other aspect that disturbed me was the reaction by the students. Granted I only saw what was reported, but there seemed to be a lack of comment from the student protest voices, in sympathy to the child victims. That was a problem for me.

  13. Thanks, Stan! Yeah, I think the students might mute their wrath a bit in light of who the victims are.