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Willful Ignorance: Sandusky, Paterno, Cain and Abu Ghraib

At first my mind could not possibly get around the idea that a thousand college students would rally on behalf of popular coach Joe Paterno, who knew about the sexual abuses perpetrated by one of his staff, Jerry Sandusky. I tried to excuse those 18 and 19 year olds who have never known or experienced sexual harassment or abuse. But this illegal and immoral activity was not a single incident. At least eight children and young adults over a ten year period were involved, including a 10 year old who was observed being sexually abused. (It was equally hard for me to understand why that observer didn’t go to the police instead of to the university authorities especially when it became apparent they were not going to do anything about it!)

But the number of Sandusky’s victims is still increasing. It is clear that PSU has a culture that allows, if not promotes sexual abuse by people in power because at last count fifteen adults at PSU knew of Sandusky’s ongoing pedophilia …for a ten year period! How does one understand or justify allowing continued sexual abuse of children and worshipful teens?  And then their so-called “independent” investigation has no one from outside the university community and no one with sexual abuse expertise on their “independent” committee. How successful will that effort be?No there is something seriously wrong with the PSU culture.

But, just as with the Sandusky victims and the church members who had been abused by priests, more women keep stepping forward to witness to the fact that a presidential candidate engaged in sexual harassing behavior, not once but multiple times. And he, of all people, had the audacity to make jokes about Anita Hill as well. So, why point fingers at PSU? The problem is in the wider culture.

I am reading multiple columns criticizing women who “cry harassment” and say it is for money or book deals. Obviously to hold such views reflects a low opinion of women. As someone who was sexually abused by an uncle and who kept it secret for 15 years, I cannot believe in a million years that any woman wants to be subjected to the public humiliation and skepticism that a male-driven society inevitably heaps on her if she dares to speak her truth about her suffering at the hands of a powerful man who feels immune to legal standards. I risked the loss of credibility and being trivialized in my family. Sexual harassment victims risk having their reputations slandered in the news media and entire community.

So perhaps it is time to talk about sin, but NOT just sexual sin. Let's talk about the sin of commission, taking advantage of one’s power to sexually molest, tease, or harass someone with less power, and the sin of omission, the sin of staying quiet when speaking up could help save another by preventing the perpetrator from pretending this is anything other than abuse. (The headlines read Sandusky says this was “Just horsing around.”) Those are the two categories of sin according to the author of the book of James. But there is a third type of sin and that is the sin of ignorance. And this is the primary sin of our culture: the refusal to open one’s mind to the horrendous reality that our silence permits.

Ignorance thrives because no one wants to feel the horror of having one’s body violated, or the isolation that retreating into silence brings, or the devastation of having a worshipped and trusted hero turn into a reprehensible villain. None of us want to believe that there is an open season on women’s bodies to be harassed, fondled, manipulated, and raped in the work place and in our communities. Given the number of brave women, young people, and parishioners who come forward keeping our eyes and ears closed about what is happening to the sexual bodies of women and children in this culture is intentional and willful ignorance. And this type of ignorance is the worst kind. It leads to a culture where winning football games is more important than the boys being violated in the locker rooms. It leads to cultural assumptions that women deserve, asked for, or lied about their reality. Such willful ignorance leads to a culture that allows or promotes the “playful” sexual “games” played by US soldiers on Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  (No doubt they were just “horsing around” as well!)

But I understand the reasoning behind willful ignorance. We shut out this reality because we fear if we took it in we would see the world is not safe. And, indeed, irresponsible power left unchecked, will always turn toward evil and abuse. But the Christian and Jewish message is that our power is to be found in our community, our covenant with one another to empathize and protect one another as brothers and sisters in the global family. The antidote to this fear is to recognize that unless and until we all band together to protect the weakest and most vulnerable, then none of us will be truly safe. Safety and the clues to a more just world are not found in our pretense but in our full, eyes-wide-open presence. Our faith teaches us that we must keep alert (“Wise as serpents” Jesus said.) with no illusions, no willingness to play games about the seriousness of the harm that nonconsensual sexual behaviors and unwanted advances create, and no excuses for those who misuse their power because they think they are immune from sanctions.

By laying aside our willful ignorance and opening our eyes we will learn that life happens and it is not all good. But we are all safer if, as a community (and a culture) we vow to protect one another, especially “the least of these.” Until we resolve that we are in this together, power abuses will continue on the bodies of the weakest. And that is neither the mark of a civilized society nor a moral one.



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