Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the Jerry Sandusky trial and Friday’s verdict: guilty on 45 out of 48 counts in the sex abuse case. While this does not make everything magically better for the victims, hopefully the verdict provides at least some comfort that justice was finally done — assuming you consider 442 years in prison for a 68-year-old man that inflicted unthinkable harm on so many children justice.
In aftermath of the verdict, one of the things that we need to do is examine how the system broke down at Penn State and how we can prevent something like this from happening in the future. Consider this article from John Ziegler, a friend of mine: “Things Most People Still Don’t ‘Get’ About the Jerry Sandusky Scandal.” It’s relevant to us as young, legal professionals because many of us will end up representing people who are viewed less-than-favorably by the public.
While it could be argued that a lawyer’s job is only to represent these people in a courtroom, I like to think that most lawyers would also want to understand these complicated and nuanced situations and how they are presented to the general public in order to prevent future tragedies.
It is interesting the case has captured the public’s interest in such a singular way. I think a lot of media coverage has unfairly cast blame members of the Penn State community (namely the late Joe Paterno) in a way that is unhelpful in preventing future abuse.
Why is this kind outcry unhelpful? Because it again bolsters fame as some kind of power to be reckoned with. No doubt fame was used by Sandusky over his victims and is a reason the abuse was able to go on for so long. And some people strongly contend that fame (and assumed power) should have been used by Paterno to expose Sandusky.
In our culture, we like to believe that fame equals power and therefore blame is often placed on the most visible person in a controversy regardless of the logic behind doing so. But let’s look at some of Ziegler’s points:
1. Paterno only heard one report about inappropriate conduct by Sandusky and the report was not substantiated at trial
2. Paterno went to the police and reported this
3. Paterno went to his superior and reported this
Yes, this is a tragedy and yes, it’s possible that Joe Paterno could have done more, told more people, talked to Sandusky, etc, etc, etc. But demonizing the man is not helping anything and draws attention away from the bigger issue: that there needs to be a better system in place to report these crimes and that here, the system failed at multiple levels and many people failed to do anything.
We can’t just call a demon anyone who could have possibly had knowledge about it, who maybe could’ve intervened or who knew anyone who knew Sandusky because they didn’t stop it themselves. There are obviously much more complicated dynamics here that need to be understood. In fact, it can be argued that this kind of mentality and the refusal to address the fundamental breakdown in this system (a breakdown that could terrifyingly happen anywhere) is something that could have contributed to the delay in uncovering this horrible situation.
I understand the rage that everyone has felt regarding this incident and I feel it too. But I just hope that the nature of the crimes and famous names involved do not blind us so badly as to prevent us from really examining where the real vulnerabilities in our reporting systems lie.