In 1977, Penn State football defensive coordinator for 32 years Jerry Sandusky founded the Second Mile, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help troubled youth across the state of Pennsylvania.
Joe Paterno was the head coach of the Penn State football team for 46 years. In addition to having been an excellent football coach, he was also an advocate for his players, with one of the highest graduation rates in the division. He and his wife are philanthropists.
A few weeks ago, Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 40 counts relating to sexual abuse of eight young boys over a 15-year period. A grand jury investigation reported that a graduate student told Paterno in 2002 that he had seen Sandusky anally raping a 10-year-old boy in Penn State football’s shower facilities. Parterno reported the incident to his supervisor but did nothing more.
Are these men good men or bad men? Without a doubt, these men allegedly did bad things: if true, Sandusky’s behavior is obviously reprehensible, and while Paterno fulfilled his legal obligation by reporting it to his supervisor, Pennsylvania state police Commissioner Frank Noonan said, “somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child.” He was shocked that the police were not called, as over the years different eye-witnesses came forward to report sexual abuse of various boys.
So without a doubt, if the allegations are true, we can say these men have done bad things: one abused children, the other did nothing to stop it from happening. We can argue about whether these things were equally bad, but not whether or not they were bad. And without a doubt if true we can say these men should be held accountable for their actions: Sandusky is being charged in criminal court and Paterno lost his job.
And yet, also without a doubt we can also say these men have done good things. According to the Second Mile website, there have been scores of letters of support for the organization from all of the families who were helped by Second Mile, and Paterno has gotten a great deal of support from students who have been positively affected by him over the years.
For many people who would consider these two men, the bad far outweighs the good, and perhaps rightfully so. People make such judgments from moral, emotional, experiential, intellectual, and religious points of view, and they might very well be correct. Certainly good arguments can be made. However, having worked with people who have done bad things for many years, I can say that most of them have also done good things over the course of their lives. Yes, there are psychopaths amongst us. However, the majority of people who commit crimes – even those alleged crimes as reprehensible as Sandusky’s – are people who have also done good things, and have meant a great deal to people.
Why is this important to consider? The first relates to awareness. If we are always looking to protect ourselves and our children from the crazy, sick, evil criminal we will miss most of the crime and abuse that happens. People such as Sandusky victimize far too many children for far too many years because people can’t believe that a good man would do such a thing. Denial is far too easy when we view perpetrators in such black and white terms.
The second reason is more complex but almost as important, and relates to issues such as redemption, treatment, punishment, and rehabilitation. If we paint all offenders with the broad brush labeled “evil,” we cease to be able to discern criminals who cannot stop themselves from continuing to harm others from those who need treatment and can be rehabilitated. This distinction is crucial in a society where prisons are overcrowded far beyond capacity and sex offenders who may be convicted of minor offenses are forced to live in tents under a freeway rather than receiving treatment and being properly re-integrated into society.
It is a complex set of circumstances that cause people who are otherwise “good” to commit crimes or harm others. Last month a California state assemblywoman who has devoted years to public service was caught shoplifting. Perhaps it was an accident, as she claimed, or perhaps she has a disorder that compels her to steal things. In the case of Sandusky, if the allegations are true it is likely he is afflicted with pedophilia – a sexual preference for children. The more we understand what compels these people to behave in ways that destroy their lives and the lives of many around them, the earlier and more effectively we can intervene. The more we can see them as complex, and capable of both good and bad, the more appropriately as a society we can respond.
Please read more from Samantha Smithstein at her blog.