by Tim Koch
I grew up in Pennsylvania and although I have not lived there in over two decades, it is still my emotional home. Since my childhood, Penn State University (PSU) has been “my” college football team and Joe Paterno “my” coach. On Wednesday night, 9 November 2011, the Trustees of PSU fired the president of the University and Paterno, in the wake of a reported series of horrifying rapes of already at-risk children by a one-time football coach from PSU—committed over a period of years, well beyond the time that these outrages had been reported to principals involved with the football program and PSU Administration. Press coverage is at a fever pitch, and these events will be analyzed from virtually every angle imaginable, and for months to come. My concern above all is with these raped children, and my hope and prayer is that they not be further victimized (even by their own family members) in the time ahead.
I have two points that I believe are both worth addressing and so far have not received much attention. Upfront, I recognize that these two points are not made in a vacuum and are not meant to eclipse other crucial matters, including the perpetrator’s primary responsibility for these heinous acts and the failure by the graduate assistant who actually witnessed abuse to physically intervene.
The first matter is something I have to ponder: time and again, radio and television talking heads have been pointing out that although Joe Paterno met his legal duty in reporting that “something” was going on, nevertheless Paterno failed his moral duty to stop the abuse. Wow. To think that the gap between what is legal and what is moral is the space in which children were raped. Breathe deep. Seriously.
Second, I believe it is important to build out from something that Law Professor Zachary Kramer addresses in his recent Law Journal for Social Justice article, “The Details of Discrimination.” Kramer takes the Supreme Court to task for its choice not to recite the facts of repeated acts of despicable sexual violence in its opinion in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. Instead, a unanimous Court in a ruling written by Justice Scalia maintained that “in the interest of both brevity and dignity we shall describe them only generally.” Kramer asserts that this failure “was a missed opportunity of the highest order.” Specifically, that opportunity was to “document discriminatory behavior,” inasmuch as discriminatory behavior cannot be eradicated if people do not know what it looks like and grasp what it actually entails.
In the Penn State debacle, early reports suggest that as one man who observed an incident of child rape occurring in the showers told another man who told another man who related it to yet another man, the details conveyed were brief and described only generally. “Horse play.” “Inappropriate touching.” These are simply not acceptable descriptors for an adult sodomizing a child. To this moment, Paterno insists that he was given a vague report which he dutifully passed on to his Athletic Director, as required by law. By these individuals not speaking frankly and thoroughly about this sexual abuse, the opportunity missed was not merely educational: it was the opportunity to stop destructive, criminal assault on children.