The most frightening moment in my life as a prosecutor was not the moment I met a mother who couldn’t accept that her husband or boyfriend had grievously harmed her child. The most frightening moment was when I realized I’d met a mother who knew her boyfriend had viciously harmed her infant, shaking him within minutes of death, but really didn’t care.
I think of that dark revelation often. I think about a NYPD Special Victims detective and I confronting her with the medical evidence and his confession, and her basically flipping us both off and walking away, even as her child lay in a neurological ICU at the edge of oblivion. The perp was a drug dealer. She was living large. The baby had pissed him off. C’est la vie.
So I think of Central Mountain High School, where the young man known graciously only as “Victim 1” in the Sandusky case was forced to relocate because of bullying.
Read that again. He was pushed out of CMHS by peers and their parents, furious at him for being unlucky enough to be part of an investigation that exposed a monster in the very community the bullies and their bullying parents came from.
I try to stay even in this space and avoid looking for shock value. But some things are shocking enough on their own. Victim 1 was tortured, picked on and driven from the school he called home because he’d been victimized by a man far too many people thought was godlike and in any event untouchable.
Some- maybe even most- of the people who bullied, isolated and rejected him because of his misfortune simply believed Sandusky to be the paragon of virtue that he seemed. Those people can be forgiven, as even the PSU leadership can be forgiven- to an extent- because they weren’t armed with the knowledge I have of predatory behavior and the ability of sex offenders to get over on entire communities for decades.
But some, I fear very deep in an already troubled heart, really just didn’t give a damn. Sara Ganim, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who broke the case, reports plainly and accurately how Sandusky was viewed at CMHS and other places in Centre County. He was a superstar. He graced the schools he visited or worked at with his presence. So to some, it didn’t matter what he did.
For some, the first reaction might have been to believe what most believe, which is that celebrity, talent and acclaim always coexist with character and benevolence. Perhaps that eventually gave way to reality. But for others, even when clear signs emerged, when damning things became apparent, some miserable instinct kicked in which blocked the truth like drapes do sunlight and then hunkered down, wanting the spoils of attention and patronage, willing to reject anything threatening it.
Victim 1 reluctantly came forward- and was ostracized- three years before Sandusky was formally charged. He endured rumors, stares, threats and whispers, but he remained quiet as investigators requested. Then, when charges were actually filed late last year, he was freshly and mercilessly bullied until he finally succumbed and left.
Some who bullied him were ignorant, their ignorance fueled by the long shadow of Penn State football and its sad, institutionally blinding effect on their environment. That’s bad. But some internalized the accusations, felt the reality of their validity sinking like a blade, but then rejected them altogether. That’s worse.
I’ve been told, in preparation for this post, that it’s unfair to focus on Central Mountain High School for an accusation of ignorance or worse, when it’s really Penn State University itself that should be called out where willful blindness is concerned.
True, but in my mind, CMHS is where the future lies, and thus where hope lies. In the wake of Sandusky, the school has a chance to move forward molding its students differently than the ones who came before, too many of them worshiping the blue and white at all costs. That kind of worship simply can’t be. There’s too much at stake. If we don’t know that now, God help us, because we never will.