What makes someone a “good person” or a “bad person”? And how do we know the difference? These may seem like esoteric questions, but the answers have both practical and important ramifications.

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.

  1. Anita Wright says:

    Thanks for bringing more clarity in understanding human behavior 

  2. [...] Do Bad Things by Samantha Smithstein Posted by MagMan on 02/12/2011 in Papers | Subscribe soulseeds.com – [...]

  3. Tryn Rose says:

    I’m sorry, I can’t buy this. Unless I’m just so shocked I can’t discern what you’re saying. What I do believe is this: you can forgive someone for the bad things they have done, but you sure better keep them away from children if they’re a pedophile so they can’t act out anymore. And are you trying to make ‘pedophilia-a sexual preference for children’-ok? Sorry, it’s not ok. Ever. And another thing, there may have been good things that came from founding The Second Mile, which is true of many organizations, or families, or workplaces, but when you find a person who has abused people through a system, get them out of there immediately, and let the good of the system continue. I knew someone who founded a high school, and had abused several children, and that system didn’t last because it was based on this personality. If a system can be redeemed, it will be. If a person can be redeemed, go ahead and try, but get them away from those they can harm. Restorative Justice where it can work, yes indeed, but don’t get tricked into believing a person who harms children should be around them unsupervised, ever again. It’s time in this world to bring sexual abusers to light, not figure out ways to hide them again. 

  4. ian says:

    hi Tryn, I dont want to speak for Samantha but I didnt get the sense from her article that she disagrees with anything you are saying. Samantha is a very compassionate advocate for children and is not at all interested in protecting abusers.
    My main take away from her article is that we need to see the good in all people (and organizations) so that we won’t be blindsided by the good people we trust if they act poorly.

    You make good points Tryn and I share your passion. We should have VERY clear boundaries to protect children, and actively bring the actions of abusers to light.
    Thanks for your comment.

  5. Nan says:

    I think the title “Sometimes Good People do Bad Things” is the wrong title. It should be “Sometimes Bad People do Good Things.”
       Any behavior can be rationalized and explained, but there is an element of “badness” that people know when they see, feel and hear it. And, this situation is it.

  6. Evey says:

    I agree with Nan. Or maybe this is a poor example to make the point that sometimes good people make poor choices. Second mile was a convinient way for an effective child molestor to have access to the most vulnerable children. It was a calculated strategic move and possibly a common one. I dont feel child sexual predators can be treated to be  be safe around children. I understand that prison holds people who should not be there–like small time drug offenders and users. But rapists, and sexual child molestors do belong there. Most sexual offenders are not in tents and under bridges. They look like “good” normal people and are often “generous” with young people. Mine was a preacher, I was ten years old. I never told any one until I got therapy in adulthood. By then, my molestor was dead from cancer.

  7. Matt Hurst says:

    I do not believe your stance would be the same towards pedophiles if it was your child. You are utterly, morally and completely out of touch on this particular instance. Not one bit of good is acceptable in the damning of a child. Rape is a violent power-trip of a crime. It is inconceivable and incomprehensible that you can even begin to attempt to look at redeemable actions or anyone else who benefited from Sandusky “Charitable Actions.” there is no redemption for this man in the laws of man. The ruination he sowed – so shall he reap on earth and in heaven. Kleptomania and Pedophiles are not even on the same scale of illnesses. Your adoption of such a view is misinformed and certainly misses the mark. Please stick to daily affirmations and leave your personal inferences to those judicial parties that will hopefully convict him and lock him away to rot. It has been proven there is no cure or deterrent to keep these predators from continuing their reign of terror from our children.

  8. ian says:

    hi Matt, thanks for your comment. Please note that this was a guest article and not written by anyone from Soulseeds. Having said that. I think you have missed the point of Samantha’s article.
    Her perspective is that it is often “good” people who perpetrate. We need to acknowledge this fact in order to create better boundaries of protection. Ian

  9. Hi Ian,
    Thank you so much for the honor of being re-published here.  Thank you also for the comments you made during the discussion – you do understand what I was trying to say in the article.  I am aware that this issue arouses much intense emotion for people, and for good reason, and I appreciate your efforts in helping to create a space for much-needed dialogue on the issue.
    Best,
    Samantha