On Saturday, as the clock struck noon at Beaver Stadium, both the good and the bad sides of Penn State were on display. Inside the towering football cathedral—where more than 100,000 Nittany Lions worshippers gathered for the first game of the post-Paterno era—a row of shirtless guys with letters painted on their chests spelled out the words “For the Kids.” At midfield prior to kickoff, Penn State and Nebraska players converged for a moment of silence and prayer for the young boys former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is accused of raping and molesting over the course of a decade, perhaps much longer. Tears flowed from the crowd and the TV cameras transmitted what seemed like genuine sadness and compassion, even remorse, to the rest of the country.
Outside the stadium, it was an uglier scene. Thirty-four-year-old John Matko, a 2000 Penn State graduate, stood in the middle of the closed-off street as thousands of PSU fans—many clad in some version of a “We Love Joe” T-shirt—milled around, many gawking at him. Matko held two hand-scrawled signs. One bore the Albert Einstein quote, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing.” The other demanded PSU “honor the abused kids by canceling this game and the season NOW.”
Students, alumni and others—and not just a handful of “rotten eggs” but literally several hundred people over the course of half an hour—spit on Matko, dumped beer on him, shoved middle fingers in his face, called him a “fucking pussy,” “faggot,” and a “piece of shit,” and yelled at him to “get the fuck out of here.” They slapped and punched his signs, occasionally knocking them to the ground. Each time, Matko slowly bent down and picked them up. One guy got inches from Matko’s face and barked “We Are!” as his buddies laughed. It was like a public flogging, and through it all Matko remained silent and just took it. “I knew I was gonna be outnumbered today, but I didn’t know quite how much,” Matko said. “I was part of this community and I know how narrow-minded everybody is around here, and they still don’t get it.”
The reality is that the good and bad have always co-existed here. But for too long many of us in Pennsylvania have fetishized the good and turned Penn State into a fantasyland of virtue.
It’s what a lot of us do. We elevate certain select institutions to an unimpeachable plane. Maybe it’s a reaction to all the day-to-day shittiness we experience—the cheating, the lying, the indecency, the brutality, the letdowns. We’re desperate for something we can believe in.
For a long time, Joe Paterno made it easy for us to believe in Penn State. Under his watch, PSU football wasn’t just about winning—and they won a lot—it was about winning the right way. Squeaky clean. Honor and integrity above all. We lauded Paterno’s “Grand Experiment.” And then many PSU devotees deified him, beatified his program and extended that mythology across Happy Valley—making the whole joint into some sort of ridiculous, abstract ideal where good was magnified and bad essentially banished (nevermind the rampant drunken idiocy and culture of sexual aggression, hallmarks of any large state university). A place where evil couldn’t possibly lurk.
Precisely the kind of environment where a child predator seeks to hang his hat.
The grand jury report makes it clear that Sandusky affixed himself to the Paterno/PSU shine that we helped create and exploited it for his own heinous purposes. Since the scandal came to light, scores of people who’ve crossed paths with Sandusky over the years have said they once believed him to be a profoundly decent man. Saintly, even. Despite Sandusky’s deep involvement with Second Mile—the foundation for troubled boys he founded in 1977 and is alleged to have mined for victims—how many authorities, agencies, colleagues and parents never even thought to take a close, hard look at this man entrusted with thousands of young boys because of that godlike PSU aura? How many background checks skipped, encounters unsupervised, warning signs disregarded, allegations dismissed because “that kind of thing could never happen here” or “Penn State would never associate with that type of person”?
Those who have put PSU on a hallowed pedestal helped create the conditions that enabled the sexual abuse.
Many of us have given our blind reverence and trust to other institutions, too.
The grand jury report released last February that implicated numerous priests and high-ranking Archdiocese of Philadelphia officials in a massive pedophilia scandal is as sickening and heartbreaking as the Sandusky report.
Yet many still view the church and its clergy as beyond reproach. So much so that, according to the grand jury report, the parents of one 14-year-old boy who detailed his rape by the Rev. James J. Brennan rejected their son’s account because Brennan was “a pillar of the community” (even though an Archdiocesan investigator found Brennan’s denials not credible).
It’s happened before. With the Boy Scouts. With USA Swimming. With military academies like the Citadel. The list shouldn’t be longer, but it is.
Everyone should be appalled, but no one should be shocked, when these types of child molestation debacles erupt. Once and for all, though, we need to heed the obvious lessons: That the places we say we least expect these things to occur should be the places we most expect them to occur. That nothing is sacred. That no one is above having a bright light shined on their activities. That we have to demand and engage in intense scrutiny and supervision with every adult we entrust with our young boys and girls. No one’s advocating paranoia, but surely we’re best off—as Lenin and Reagan put it—when we “trust, but verify.”
To date, the grand jury report remains one of the few accounts that documents what exactly these boys (now men in their 20s) had to endure. This is because, since Day 1, this story has never been about sexual abuse. And as the spouse of a sexual-abuse survivor, I’m heartbroken. My husband was abused by his stepfather when he was 6, and for a period of time no one believed him except for his dad, who reported the abuse to the authorities.