The big picture on Joe Paterno, $60 million and Penn State University
(Marci Hamilton holds a Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University; earned two Master’s degrees at Penn State; is a children’s rights activist; and represented two victims of Jerry Sandusky.)
Imagine that you were sexually assaulted by a man you trusted (take your pick: coach, father, priest, rabbi, uncle, and the list goes on) when you were 10 years old. I know that for one in four of the women and one in six of the men that is simply a fact, but for the rest of you, imagine it for a moment. What a week you had!
First, Woody Allen, credibly accused of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter according to prosecutors, has landed a first-of-its-kind deal with Amazon. Then, yet another woman stepped forward to make claims against Bill Cosby, saying she awoke, feeling drugged and undressed to find him over her, only to have him deny it yet again as he continues his stand-up comedy tour.
The best was saved for last: Penn State reached a deal Friday with the NCAA on its sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The university will still pay $60 million, but it will go only to child sex abuse survivors in the state of Pennsylvania, which is, from the perspective of Penn State’s bottom line, no change at all. More important — apparently to Penn Staters — the NCAA relented and instead of holding Joe Paterno responsible for the sexual abuse of children by his assistant coach in his facilities, even after he learned about it, he is off scot-free. The NCAA pivoted and restored the wins it had removed from his record as a punishment for his failure to protect kids. He’s back to 409. Yippee!
Here is the message our society sends again and again to child sex abuse victims: Powerful men and their reputations must be protected at all costs, regardless of what happened to you and the roughly 20 percent of the population that has been sexually abused. They are more important than you are. Whether they sexually abused a child themselves or they failed to protect multiple children when they could, the drive is to restore their reputations as soon as possible.
Here is the message our society sends again and again to child sex abuse victims: powerful men and their reputations must be protected at all costs …
In fact, the Penn State story has always had strong parallels with the priest sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church: Powerful men in an influential and revered institution fail to take action when children are suffering. Then, when the truth comes out, the institution and the powerful men at the top fight tooth and nail to restore their former power and glory. In the end, they really don’t care about the money nearly as much as they do about their reputations.
Penn State celebrated the reinstatement of Paterno’s win-loss record as though Paterno were the victim. Its celebration is the epitome of the culture of re-victimization: Give the victims a moment of outrage, maybe some justice, but then demand a return to the good, old days as though it never happened in the first place. Turn a cataclysmic event into a seamless past, restore fallen heroes to their previous pedestals and forget the victims.
The impact of the NCAA’s waffling is nationwide. Here is the message every university sports program currently covering up a child sex abuse (or adult sex assault) scandal heard last week: There might be some early strong reactions, but don’t worry. It will all go away soon enough. In other words: it’s no big deal — you can always reinstate your heroes and your reputation. That translates into less protection for children and few incentives for powerful men to do what is right in the first place.
When powerful men like Joe Paterno fail to protect children and get a pass, we all lose.