As a rookie prosecutor in Alexandria, Virginia, I brought my first cases before an ancient and distinguished judge who at times had a penchant for the impeccable and brilliant aphorism. One he used when adjudicating minor traffic cases has stuck with me throughout the years. “The world is basically divided into two groups. The caught, and the uncaught.”
His meaning was simple: Folks, we’re all guilty of minor traffic violations. If you’re here, you’re probably just caught. If not, you’re uncaught, but only for now.
That is the Penn State Community in a nutshell. It is devastated. It is bewildered. It is ashamed. It is grieving, reflecting, adjusting and hopefully persevering. But what’s important to remember is that PSU is not doing these penances because it is unique or alone. Simply put, PSU is going through these things because its leadership was- to put it bluntly- caught. They were caught harboring a predator for at least sentimental and naïve reasons, and at worst for cynical, self-protecting ones. But as the reality of the sanctions settles and the pain to this remarkable and time-honored community is fully realized, it’s worth noting a basic and persistent truth: Predators like Jerry Sandusky are everywhere, and operating- as my fingers type these words- as efficiently as ever.
Sandusky’s circumstances were mournfully peculiar in that he was a god-like figure in his environment, backed by the most pervasive and defining aspect of the culture, Penn State Football. But far below these uncommon circumstances, predators like him have found havens, and are doing untold amounts of damage, in academic communities and organized social settings of all kinds, right this minute. Every venerable, time-honored and values-based institution has a predator problem. All that separates the exposed from the unexposed is the machinery of victimization, cloaking as it does- for a time- the horrors of the abuse and the cries of the abused.
If there is anything positive that can emerge from the deep sadness permeating PSU, it is not the belief- for other institutions- that “there but for the grace of God go we.” Rather, it’s the darker and more terrifying reality of “there we are as well- simply unexposed as such.” This, while desperately needed, will be the pill tragically unswallowed by similar organizations watching events at PSU unfold.
Rather than do what they must, which is to take an unvarnished look at their own environments and the endless vectors for infiltration that exist, they will confidently and foolishly distinguish themselves somehow from Penn State and assure themselves that they “know” the mentors, coaches and leaders that direct and control their environments. They’ll fool themselves into believing, for a string of ironically specious reasons, that their venerable and respected enclaves are simply not the kinds of places that bad people would seek to infiltrate. Indeed, it is this terrible dichotomy- predators seeking prey and protection in an environment so antithetical to what they are- that has foiled so many great institutions blind to their own weaknesses and tricked into thinking they are somehow above the invisible but very real laws of osmosis that attract bad actors to good environments.
Rather than do the difficult but crucial work of self-examination, rather than seek transparency within their own leadership structure with the help of outside observers trained to assist in making best-practice recommendations, they will retreat to a pernicious blind-spot and convince themselves they are somehow oddly enlightened, even “blessed” with introspection and unusual clarity- again because of the sanctity of their mission, whatever it is.
Rather than engage internally in honest, open debate about whether they have at any time placed the reputation, value and productive capability of their institutions over the well-being of even the least notable of the people affected by it, they will delude themselves into believing they are led by an unassailable and internal moral compass.
And the suffering will continue, until the stone is finally rolled away and light is allowed to penetrate, wounding the institution that believed itself protected and impenetrable. But this damage can only follow the most shameful of all- the destruction of human beings who looked to it for the opposite of what they received.