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The Penn State Rape Scandal and the Myth of the ‘Otherwise Decent Person’

Megan McArdle and Ross Douthat both need to think a second time.

by
Rob Taylor

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November 18, 2011 - 1:09 am
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The reaction to the Penn State child rape scandal in some quarters is almost as disgusting as the alleged rapes and subsequent cover-ups themselves. Let’s put aside what were basically pro-pedophilia riots that Penn State students started when Joe Paterno was rightfully punished for his shameful inaction, or the physical attacks on those who advocate for the victims, which are obviously one of the more disturbing parts of this story.

Instead, let’s discuss the more insidious and disturbing aspect of this story which is the narrative being promoted by many (including prominent columnists) that the rioters, the people who covered up the abuse, and those who could have stopped alleged rapes but didn’t can still be considered good or decent people.

For example, Ross Douthat wrote a piece for the New York Times that compares the Penn State molestation scandal to the Catholic sex abuse scandal and gives his readers a highly “nuanced” view:

Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.

I believe that Joe Paterno is a good man.

Not content to stop with such obvious wrong-headedness, Douthat compares Paterno to Catholic officials who thought the Holy Mother Church was of greater importance than children being raped and writes:

They believed in their church. They believed in their mission. And out of the temptation that comes only to the virtuous, they somehow persuaded themselves that protecting their institution’s various good works mattered more than justice for the children they were supposed to shepherd and protect.

I suspect a similar instinct prompted the higher-ups at Penn State to basically ignore what they described as Jerry Sandusky’s “inappropriate conduct,” and persuaded Paterno that by punting the allegation to his superiors he had fulfilled his responsibility to the victimized child. He had so many important duties, after all, and so many people counting on him. And Sandusky had done so much good over the years….

I’ll leave it to Catholics to debate the propriety of comparing a college football program to Christendom’s oldest institution  and one of the the most profound influences on Western civilization. But I would like to have seen Douthat finish that thought. Sandusky did what that was good? Worked with charities?

Should working with a charity — something thousands of people do as a merely social experience — really influence whether a “good” person decides if a potential child rapist should be reported to the police?

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