Roughly a year ago, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child abuse. Shortly thereafter, Louis Freeh, an independent investigator, released the report that Penn State had asked him to produce. Freeh had been asked to find out how Sandusky had gotten away with abusing minors over many years, to investigate whether University personnel had failed to respond or report appropriately, and to make recommendations for the future.
Freeh's report named and shamed "four of the most powerful people at Penn State" for failing to protect children over a period of more than a decade. For many readers, this will have been in the end of the story. But for others, Freeh's conclusion was simply unimaginable. For some, protecting the "honor" of the PSU football program seems to have taken first priority.
In these arguments (endlessly rehashed in the letters pages of the Centre Daily Times), people often pose a simple dilemma. Guilty or not? Did Paterno, Spanier and the rest really sit down one day and say, flat out, "It's a real shame that Jerry is a molester, but these kids have to be sacrificed so that the football team can keep winning"? Or are these "powerful people" really ignorant and innocent, simply additional victims of a master manipulator? To me, both these alternatives seem implausible.
There is a resonant phrase in Paul's letter to the Romans which refers to those who "hold down the truth in unrighteousness". It reminds me of our (my!) almost endless ability to avoid facing up to reality, to stop unwelcome insights rising to the surface of our consciousness. When one reads the emails cited by Freeh, with their evasive phrasing, it seems that the writers are trying almost as hard not to name the reality that they are facing as they are trying not to name any of the individuals involved.
We all do this. At some level we know, for instance, that our extractive way of life (whereby we measure our well-being by the speed at which we convert "resources" to "waste") cannot be sustained forever. But acknowledging that at the level of conscious action will require painful change. So we (I) don't. We hold down the truth, and hope it will stay buried for just a little longer. It's a natural response.
But it doesn't make us innocent.
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