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Do the Right Thing

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh has now issued his final report on the scandal at Penn State University, but the question remains: How could so many decent people fail to act when presented with an eyewitness account of sexual abuse of a child?

Jerry Sandusky, assistant coach at Penn State for 32 years, was convicted in June of 45 counts of child sex abuse. For at least 15 years, Sandusky used his position at Penn State to prey on victims, setting up a charitable foundation that recruited at-risk boys, many of whom he would abuse on campus and on team road trips as well as at his home.

But Sandusky's colleagues and supervisors turned a blind eye to what should have been suspicious behavior. Worse, they did nothing to try to protect the actual victims when a then-graduate assistant in the program, Mike McQueary, told them he'd seen Sandusky abusing a child in a campus locker room. In the Freeh report's words, university officials demonstrated "total disregard for the safety and welfare of the victims."

The report attributed this indifference to a desire "to avoid the consequences of bad publicity" on the part of the most powerful officials at Penn State. Even the college's beloved head coach, Joe Paterno, came in for scathing criticism. Paterno, who was fired soon after the accusations against Sandusky became public and who died of cancer in January, learned of Sandusky's behavior from McQueary. But the Freeh report noted that Paterno initially delayed passing on what McQuery told him because he didn't "want to interfere" with anyone's weekend plans.

It would be simple to lay the blame for what occurred on the culture of college football, where winning means everything, not just to the team and its players but to the schools as well. But the Penn State scandal is no different than similar scandals involving sexual abuse of children by authority figures in institutions as wide-ranging as the Catholic Church, state mental hospitals, youth detention centers, and the Boy Scouts. And in many of these cases, the guilty parties are not only the perpetrators but those who looked away or, worse, tried to cover up what they knew was happening.

The pattern seems to be more the rule than the exception. Confronted with evidence that a colleague, employee, or supervisor is abusing vulnerable children, too many people fail to intervene.

Is it the sexual nature of these crimes that paralyzes people? Maybe, but many people walk away even when witnessing the crime is less fraught with embarrassment -- it's common enough for bystanders to ignore when a victim is being beaten, robbed, raped, or murdered. There are a few Good Samaritans out there, but not nearly enough.

The fear of getting involved seems to be paramount in discouraging people to intervene, even when they know they should. Has it always been so? It's tempting to think we used to be better about doing what is right, but it's not clear that is so.
Almost 50 years ago in New York, Kitty Genovese, a young woman, was raped and murdered as some people watching from nearby apartment windows ignored her screams. And mob lynchings in the United States -- complete with crowds egging the murderers on -- were shockingly common in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, occurring as late as 1964.

What this says about human behavior is sobering. Edmund Burke is often credited with saying, "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Certainly the good men at Penn State did far too little to protect children. Each of us should remember this the next time we see something happening we know is wrong. It often takes only one person to do the right thing for others to follow. But each of us, individually, has to assume the responsibility to be that one person when the occasion arises.