This isn’t the way to protect our children

Should we punish Joe Paterno in the 21st century for his retrospective cultural attitudes?

This isn’t the way to protect our children

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

A virus hits American commanders-in-chief when on aircraft carriers. Think George W. Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln declaring we “have prevailed” in front of the Mission Accomplished banner. Or the sombre Richard Nixon doing a mini jig of excitement on board the Hornet at the Apollo 11 splashdown. Hard not to compare them unfavourably with Cher on the USS Missouri in thigh-high stockings and biker jacket, utter fabulosity, even though her lyrics, “If I could turn back time,” were nearly as banal as Dubya’s.

For new lows the ribbon goes to President Obama’s Veterans Day remarks on the USS Carl Vinson. The Penn State scandal, said the American President, should lead to “soul- searching” by Americans. “Our first priority,” he said, “is protecting our kids.” As opposed to what: protecting senior citizens, the economy or perhaps the endangered Kretschmarr cave mould beetle? A bit rich, anyway, in a country where over a million of its potential kids per year get deliberately aborted.

Briefly, in case you have been in a coma: legendary (junior grade) Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, 67 (there are many “legendary” figures in this story, but as I can’t tell legend from long snapper in American football, I can’t vouch for the designation), has been indicted on 40 charges, all relating to sexual assault on minors. The indictment came via a grand jury convened over years in the absence of the citizen under investigation or proper rules of evidence.

Included are allegations of groping, anal sex in showers and oral sex with young boys met through Sandusky’s program for disadvantaged youths. All very nasty, but unproven before trial, which is already mission unaccomplishable. Prosecutors released the grand jury’s findings of fact to an eager press who advertently misplaced the word “alleged.” Thus the “How many other children could have been sodomized?” reaction of Nancy Grace. I doubt any jury north of Antarctica could try this case fairly.

Two executives at Penn State are charged with perjury and failing to report allegations of child abuse to the police. The graduate assistant who reported a 2002 shower incident to his Penn State superior is now on “indefinite leave.” Legendary coach Joe Paterno, 84, due to retire, has been fired by Penn’s board of trustees together with unlegendary university president Graham Spanier. More alleged victims are coming forward. There is talk of civil suits to be filed on behalf of the victims against the university. Experienced child abuse lawyer Slade McLaughlin is quoted saying lawyers are trolling for clients at the Penn State rallies: “When you’ve got 19, 20 kids coming out, saying ‘he did it, he did it,’ ” explains McLaughlin, “I don’t understand why anyone at Penn State in their right mind would say, ‘Let’s fight this.’ ” Nope, just roll over: if there are funds to be dished out, it’s payday.

Do we want a society in which people who see a crime but don’t report it to the police become criminalized? If you see a mugging and don’t report it immediately to the police you are morally bankrupt but not a criminal. If I tell my boss I saw a fellow employee stealing from the supply cabinet, should I be charged if she doesn’t go to the police? Snitching is the right thing to do in every conceivable sense if you see a child being sodomized, but to create another class of criminals for not snitching doesn’t seem helpful. Such reporting laws are part of what sentencing authority professor Michael O’Hear of the Marquette University law school, in his essay “Perpetual Panic,” refers to as “harmful effects of excessive or misdirected responses” to child sexual abuse. They won’t deter sexual predators, but commit resources to non-productive areas.

Changing emphasis in the culture is another inconvenience. Penn State’s own professor Philip Jenkins, a distinguished historian, in his book Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America, details three waves that peaked in approximately 1915, 1950 and 1985 of “wildly exaggerated and wrongly directed” panic over child abusers, with public interest declining during the 1920s and 1960s. In retrospect, say both Jenkins and O’Hear, 1985 was not the peak but the plateau. We are now in the third decade of this hysteria, with new laws proliferating, harsher sentences and witch hunts based on false memory syndrome and the lure of big payoffs.

Sex with children has rightly never been acceptable in modern times, particularly if physical force is involved, but the age of consent has varied considerably and still does in both the U.S. and Europe, from 13 to 18 years old, according to gender or marital status. Paterno, whose only crime appears to be not going to the police, came of age in the locker rooms of the late forties, where sex with a child would be wrong but likely handled inside the university. Should we punish him in the 21st century for his retrospective cultural attitudes? There is a case to be made for a temporal jurisdiction: crimes committed in the cultural framework of another time may not always yield to trials held in new time.

A statute of limitations (currently removed for child abuse) exists because memories fail, hard evidence may be unavailable, guilt or innocence cannot be established confidently. How can you know which of the adults citing incidents 20 years ago are telling the truth? Is the onus to be on the accused to prove his innocence rather than the accuser to prove his case?

Perhaps Cher was wrong. We can turn back time and have: to the hysteria and methods of 17th-century Salem, to Cotton Mather and his “touching tests” for witches. Not a good bargain for justice and no way to protect our children. But we keep singing the same tune and it’s getting louder.


This isn’t the way to protect our children

  1. It is terrible that that man is free.  It is awful that all news on this has been quiet for days.
    This must run deeper than we know.

  2. Unbelievable that you can defend this mans actions.  I do not understand where ‘I did not think I was doing wrong’, or even better, ‘I did not think I would get caught’ are plausible defences.  What a joke.

  3. I read this article twice and I still cannot believe what I am reading….”Do we want a society in which people who see a crime but don’t report it to the police become criminalized?”….gee if I am not mistaken, Ms. Amiel, it is against the law in Canada to have knowledge of child abuse and not report it to the proper authorities.  You have failed to mention that when the grad student reported witnessing Mr. Sandusky sodomizing a 10 year old in the showers, it was not the first time Sandusky had been caught “horsing around in the showers” with a child.  You also fail to mention that the University staff did act on the report of Sandusky sodomizing the child in the shower.  They prohibited him from bringing any more children to the university.  They didn’t stop him from abusing children, they just made sure he didn’t do it on the hallowed grounds of Penn State.

  4. I love how this “writer” equates child abuse to stealing a purse or stealing from your place of employment.

    I also like the passive agressive jab at abortion.

    What a waste of bandwidth!

  5. My comments on this disturbing article;

    A child being molested by an authority figure usually won’t stop until someone else reports it. If you believe you have witnessed a child being molested and decide to leave it to either the child, child molester or another possible future witness to stop it themselves, you will be partially responsible for any further abuse.

    If not reporting it isn’t a crime I don’t know what is.

    Equating a child getting sexually molested to office theft is disgusting.

    Paterno should not be given a break just because they did things different in the 40’s. There are many things from the 1940’s that are not exceptable and that would be one of them.

    Witches don’t exsist. Child molesters do.

    I w

    • Your problem, however, would really be with Mike McQueary—who actually saw at least one instance with his own eyes.

  6. Amiel writes “Paterno, whose only crime appears to be not going to the police, came of age in the locker rooms of the late forties, where sex with a child would be wrong but likely handled inside the university. Should we punish him in the 21st century for his retrospective cultural attitudes? There is a case to be made for a temporal jurisdiction: crimes committed in the cultural framework of another time may not always yield to trials held in new time.”

    Something tells me that Mr. Paterno had no problem adapting to the changing trends and demands and expectations of football, and that he knew very well what today’s football rules were versus what they were when he was playing the game himself.  Amiel’s assertions that he was some old man who thinks it is still 1940 are absurd at best.  She is simply sympathizing with a wealthy, powerful and influential man who didn’t seem to care that young children were being raped.  I guess she just doesn’t get what all the fuss is about….I mean, it’s only children were talking about, and it’s not like they are her children…or her dogs

  7. As was pointed out in the column, there will no doubt be dozens of lawsuits filed, the majority of which will likely be settled out of court. While I agree odds are there will be a healthy number of victims who will make false claims in an effort to cash in on the wounded reputation of Penn State, this is in large the fault of the administration for failure on their part to properly intervene years ago.
    The Penn State ‘superiors’, whose utter failure to comply with state (and moral) laws, have cause an understandable backlash at all levels of the school’s administration. When those at the top who are hired to make the “right” decisions fail to do so, society can only be satisfied with the verbal raping and condemnation of anyone within arms length of those ultimately responsible. However, as pointed out, there must be some set of limits in place. For instance, over the period of 40 years, some of the youth must have mentioned details of the assaults to their parents; Are these parents, too, guilty of not reporting it? If they did not, is their inaction any more excusable than those at the school? Does it then make sense to prosecute a parent for hesistating to confront the issue as well?
    If this is the way justice is pursued, there will be a lot more Charlie Engle’s out there in jail than Angelo Mozilo’s.
    This does not morally justify the many who turned a blind eye to the events that occured over decades, but it does at least prevent a loss of focus on those who are ultimately responsible.

    • Alyssa, I think you might need to do some reserch on the “victims”.  Mr. Sandusky started a charity for under priviledged children and he hand-picked his victims from this charity.  Some parents actually called police.  One such parent did so in 1998 when her son reported that Sandusky was “horsing around with him in the showers at Penn State”.  Sandusky was apologetic and said it was harmless and within a year or two was caught sodomizing a child in the locker room.  In 2008, another parent went to police with her son’s story of being molested by Sandusky and finally the grand jury was convened for a 3 year investigation.  Prediators are smart.  They pick victims that have few friends or resources.  You are assuming these children have parents to go to, many don’t.

      • That 1998 allegation is what got Sandusky fired as defensive coordinator. However, Jerry Sandusky remained a tenured professor at the the school.

        The real blame lies on those who “saw something” and didn’t “say something” to the Penn State University police.

  8. Ah Babs, maybe wash your distaste down with another dry martini.

    Thanks though, you make hating the rich easy.

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