What We Should Learn from the Sandusky Trial – But Won't

Since the recent announcement that former Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts of child sex abuse, there has been a lot of media hand-wringing over how this happened and what we should learn from it.  The question is a good one, but so far, the answers have been less than profound.

SI.com’s college football page offered this bit of wisdom: “If anything good can come out of the Jerry Sandusky trial, it is this: if we hear or see something that is inappropriate, we know to ask questions immediately.”

If that’s the only good that can come from the Sandusky trial, then no good will come from the Sandusky trial.  History demonstrates that people very frequently look the other way.  If we didn’t learn to report the “inappropriate” after, say, the Holocaust, we aren’t likely to learn to report it after the Sandusky trial.

The Week warned us: “Beware-predatory monsters exist.”

In a culture that is as obsessed with violence and the macabre as our own, it’s hard to imagine how this bit of information could have escaped anyone’s attention.

ESPN.com’s Howard Bryant attributed the crimes to a “conspiracy of power” and said that we must “crush the runaway culture of the coach.”

But power wasn’t the problem here.  Power may have shielded and prolonged the abuse, but it didn’t give rise to it.  As for coaches, they are no less trustworthy than the columnists (and the NCAA) who scrutinize them.

Roxanne Jones, writing for CNN.com, said, “It’s a sports problem.”

The data, however, tells a different story, indicating that most child sex abuse occurs in a home and is unrelated to sports.  It is no more a sports problem than Lincoln’s assassination in Ford’s Theatre was a performing arts problem.

Jones then goes on to advocate mandatory workshops and changes to school curricula.  Others, suggesting that it was the result of a lack of institutional control, are calling for legislation, regulations, and greater accountability.

These are understandable reactions, but is this all we are to learn from these vile revelations-that there are “monsters” out there, and we need more government oversight (as if we can trust them) and mandatory workshops (yes, another workshop) to stop future abuse?  All of these solutions feel a bit like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on sugary drinks to combat obesity.  They are small.  Incomplete.  And will ultimately prevent nothing.

At this rate, the Sandusky trial will be for sports and universities what 9-11 was for air travel: a bureaucratic nightmare for everyone but the perpetrators.  One wonders how many workshops Jerry Sandusky attended before he raped little boys.  And it wasn’t an absence of law that made his secret life a possibility.  There were enough laws to convict him for several lifetimes.  No, were we to heap all of the world’s law from Hammurabi’s Code to the Constitution into one great pile it would not be enough to save our children – or us.

The lesson to be learned from the Jerry Sandusky trial is not in itself a solution, but in this case it may be more important than one.

We prefer answering questions of How rather than questions of Why and busy ourselves with solutions to avoid an uncomfortable truth.

Writing on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, philosopher Hannah Arendt concluded that trial observers “missed the greatest moral challenge of the whole case” when they chose to believe that Eichmann was mentally disturbed in spite of psychological evaluations indicating that he was normal.  No one wanted to believe it.  Hence, the lesson missed, wrote Arendt, was “the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.

We will similarly demonize Jerry Sandusky because we have a psychological need to do so.  In sentencing him society pleads innocence and averts its eyes from what a trial like this tells us about ourselves.  The alternative – that a fellow human being possessed of the same nature as our own, inculcated with the same values, and a respected member of the same society is capable of such atrocities – is too disturbing to contemplate.

At Dachau Concentration Camp a large stone memorial stands defiantly in the center of the compound with the phrase “NEVER AGAIN” written in five languages.  The first time I saw it I was moved by the power of such a statement.  Then it struck me that it was absurd, because the sad fact is that it has happened again.  The twentieth century saw additional genocides in Russia, Cambodia, Rwanda, China, and the Balkans to name only a few.

So, too, will child molestation, rape, murder, theft, warfare, and the like happen again in spite of our many laws, workshops, curricula changes, and protestations to the contrary.  They will continue, that is, until we confront the simple, yet terrible truth of the human condition: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Perhaps in recognizing that evil is innate to us all we begin to find a Solution.  As Pascal observed long ago: “It is in vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure of all your miseries.  All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good.”

The “true and good” is found in Jesus Christ alone.

This is what America should learn from the Jerry Sandusky trial – but won’t.


© 2012 Larry A. Taunton

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