Thursday, November 10, 2011

Doing the Right Thing

The parallels are striking.

84 year old Penn State University head football coach, Joe Paterno, was swiftly fired yesterday after one of the most successful coaching careers in football history.

Joe Paterno is a legend. In his 46 years as head coach his record is an astounding 409 wins to 136 losses. This is unmatched by any other coach in the history of college football. And yet in one moment he has been disgraced and immediately fired. How could something like this happen?

A graduate assistant told Paterno in 2002 that he had seen his defensive co-coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, performing a sex act on a 10-year-old boy in Penn State football's shower facilities. Paterno took that information to his superiors. What happened at that meeting is unclear. But what followed is very clear. Nothing happened. Life went on as usual. Nothing was reported to the police. Not by university officials. Not by Paterno. Not by anyone.

Last week it was reported that some of his victims have come forward and have been telling their story. That got Sandusky arrested on 40 counts of abuse of eight boys during a 15 year period. When it was discovered that Paterno knew about at least one event that happened nearly 10 years ago and did virtually nothing – his career was over! He tried to resign gracefully saying he would leave at the end of the season, but the University would not have any of that. They gave him the boot. An illustrious 46 year career - down the drain! Rather than retiring as an icon he will have to live out the rest of his years tainted by a sex scandal.

But his fans still support him. I guess there is either disbelief or denial about their hero. Or there is a disconnect from the reality of the situation. They do not see the damage he was responsible for or they rationalize it away. They only see their icon!

Let us compare that to what happens in the Torah world. When an iconic Israeli Rosh HaYeshiva was accused of sex abuse his defenders rallyed to his side. This despite victim testimony and strong evidence of abuse. People do not want to see their icons torn down.

What do our ‘university leaders’ (e.g. Roshei Yeshiva, people in outreach, members of the Agudah Moetzes …) do when there is knowledge of abuse by a person in a position to do something about it? In the above case in Israel they quickly removed him from his job.

In another case here in the US - an outreach organization did almost exactly what Penn State did. They let heads roll very swiftly sparing no one. No one who knew about the abuse was let off the hook – no matter how high up the food chain they went. Much like Joe Paterno people with a lifetime of high achievement have forever had their reputations tainted by it.

On the other hand there have been ample cases in the not too distant past of sex abuse in Yeshivos and other organizations where the policy was to cover it up. A prominent religious figure publicly stated at a convention a few years ago: ‘Yes, sometimes we do sweep things under the carpet!’ Presumably the thinking was that as long as the abuse was stopped, nothing further should be done because innocent people will get hurt. Police were not informed and abusers never prosecuted. Besides, reporting abusers to the police was considered Mesira.

The problem has always been that the abuse was never stopped. At most the abuser was merely sent (or chased) away quietly from one community only to find another one where he could ‘set up shop’.

Sometimes justice was not pursued because of financial considerations - fearing major damage to the Torah world. An example of this attitude was the Markey Bill. It was a bill introduced in the New York State legislature to extend the statute of limitations for victims in order to allow them to file financial lawsuits against abusers and their enabling institutions. The Agudah Moetzes fought this bill because they believed it exposed Yeshivos to lawsuits that could destroy them. They considered the price of justice for the victim too high!

What about the victims? Tough luck! They’ll live.

Does the Agudah Moetzes not realize the abnormally high rate of suicide among victims of abuse?

However, things have changed for the better. People in the Torah world are now better educated on the subject. There have been abuse prevention programs introduced in the religious community that teach parents how to recognize symptoms of abuse in a child and what to do about it. The idea of sweeping abuse under the carpet has been abandoned. Most religious leaders agree when there is credible evidence of abuse it must be reported to the police. I credit public awareness of the problem to have helped bring about this change of attitude. Thank you internet.

But there is still a long way to go before we see the kind of swift justice we just saw at Penn State. According to the Agudah Moetzes credible evidence is still subject to rabbinic review before it can be reported.

It seems that the non Torah world gets it. They are completely on the side of the victim. They understand what it means for a child to get sexually abused by an adult authority figure. There is no rationalizing or agonizing about what to do. Penn State took an icon and buried him in a flash! They have a zero tolerance policy about anyone who in any way covers up the sex abuse. It did not matter to them how long ago the incident he knew about happened.

There were no discussions about what it would do to the school if a legend like Paterno was dropped like a lead balloon from their employ. No consideration for the reputation of his family, his children, or grand children. He knew about a child being abused and did precious little about it. As a result the abuser went unpunished, the sex abuse continued for years, and people’s lives were ruined!

Maybe our leaders can learn something about the right priorities here. Im Amar Lecha Yesh Chachma BaGoyim Ta'amin - wisdom can be found among the nations.

Updated 1:35 pm CST