Now that Joe Paterno has been canned for keeping quiet about the serial rape taking place on his watch at Penn State, a troubling question is burning anew in the public conscience: How guilty are we for crimes we do not commit but fail to report? Are we, as innocent bystanders, responsible for bad things we know about? Or is See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil a conscientious M.O. in morally complex situations?
The answer is: Hell no. As we've seen in the fall of Saint Joe, even when you're the winningest coach in major college football history -- 409 victories at Penn State, (more than any other major college football coach), two national titles, 62 years of exemplary service, and more than $5 million of personal donations to Penn (enough to build a university library and a spiritual center) -- even when you're on the brink of retirement at 84 and have spent your career standing for "integrity, family, and principle," as a recent New York Times piece claimed -- even then, when the public thinks you're a saint, there's no free pass on the right thing to do.
When Joe Paterno failed to act aggressively on a report that his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was serially molesting underprivileged boys in the football facility -- some as young as eight years old -- he sacrificed his integrity for the sake of his school's reputation. (It has been alleged that Paterno was told about at least one of the accusations). Though Paterno is rumored to be resigning shortly and is now publically calling for prayers for the victims, this does nothing to mitigate the guilt of his silence before these serial rapes were exposed. Paterno has just as much smut on his hands as Tim Curly and Gary Shultz, the university officials who've charged with failing to report the crimes and lying to a grand jury during an investigation.
The Paterno Effect -- the soft-minded notion that bystanders are anything less than culpable for crimes they know about -- is an ethical dinosaur that must die. When we turn our eyes from injustice and suffering, we actively participate in evil. We become "willing executioners," as Daniel Goldhagen wrote in his book about how ordinary Germans turned their eyes from the horrors of the Holocaust; we enable crime to continue through laxness. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. The cop out of "it's none of my business" -- practiced every day, in every country, by witnesses of domestic violence, for example -- is a moral scourge whose passive damage saps our humanity of strength and defeats our purpose as social animals: to be our brother's keepers, indeed (and in deed); to help maintain -- together -- the equilibrium of moral order and the preservation of what we hold sacred.
This is not highfalutin' or abstract: Without exposing the Paterno Effect (which could go by a number of other names: The DSK Effect works equally nicely), we cannot grow as an ethical culture. The wheel of suffering will keep on turning. I've spent the past two years interviewing men about rape (as part of a play I'm helping to write for Eve Ensler's organization, V-Day) and seen firsthand how the Paterno Effect eats away at families, neighborhoods, churches. I've heard men weep over crimes not reported and listened as victims of sexual violence -- male and female, young and old -- blamed those who knew what was happening but chose to look the other way. "How could you not say anything?" an abused boy demanded of the ex-school principal who failed to fire the fourth-grade teacher who sodomized him. The principal, a pleasant-looking man of 60, actually shrugged off the oversight, blaming the school's chain of command for his silence and what he pretended not to know. His excuse was as hollow as his conviction and reminded me of how little has changed in the centuries since Edmund Burke issued his famous warning: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Every time a DSK walks free, a Herman Cain lies through his teeth, or a Catholic bishop fails to report the misconduct of a priest in his parish, evil scores a point in the public arena. Because sexual abuse is evil. Silence and collusion are criminal. Turning a blind eye does handicap a society trying to make itself better.
When we know about something and do not act -- as Joe Paterno appears to have done -- we imitate the crime we ignore. We become like the rapist, the con man, the thief. We become willing executioners, even if we never lay hands on a soul. Joe Paterno should have known that. Even for a public hero, there's no free pass on the right thing to do.