A valley where the kids were not all right
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The ancient world was a cruel place for children. Most cultures treated them like chattel. The idea that they had any rights an adult was obliged to respect was unthinkable. They were slaves.
If children were lucky enough to survive the uncertain journey into the world, they could look forward to being used in barter or married without consent even before reaching puberty.
Children could be executed at the whim of an aggrieved parent who could point to plenty of religious texts sanctioning the killing of an incorrigible or disobedient child.
To be a child meant being subject to whatever cruel exchange rate parents, community leaders or strange gods could improvise in the marketplace. Children were pawns first, humans last.
When Jesus said that it would be better for a man if he had an anchor tied around his neck and dropped into the sea rather than cause "one of these little ones to stumble," he was introducing a radical idea to the ancient world -- what happens to children matters. Jesus insisted that there was a moral imperative to treat children with respect.
That's why reports about child molestation among Catholic clergy and the failure of the church hierarchy at every level to exert sufficient indignation, authority or urgency in dealing with it over several decades caused so much revulsion and loss of faith in recent years.
In a classic reversal of Jesus' priorities, religious officials ignored the corrosive moral cancer that had corrupted generations of children under their care because they were more concerned about protecting the institutional reputation of rectories that had become little more than crime scenes.
But painful experience has taught us over the centuries that sex scandals don't happen in a vacuum. During the same decade that news stories about predators in the Catholic Church were generating daily headlines, Penn State University was dropping the proverbial ball regarding allegations of predation against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
The state's grand jury presentment makes for lurid reading:
There had already been reports of inappropriate behavior between Mr. Sandusky and at-risk middle-school-age kids as early as 1998. A promise not to shower with an 11-year-old was enough to satisfy the State Department of Public Welfare and a university detective a year before he retired.
In 2000, Mr. Sandusky was allegedly seen by a janitor having sex with another child in the shower. The janitor told other janitorial staff and his supervisor about the incident, but he never reported the assault to the cops because of fear of losing his job.
In 2002, Penn State football graduate assistant Mike McQueary sees Mr. Sandusky having sex with another child in the shower. He reports it to legendary coach Joe Paterno, who laterals it off to his boss, PSU athletic director Tim Curley.
When the incident was brought to PSU President Graham Spanier's attention, it either lacked the details that would have prompted immediate action or it was not considered a big deal.
For years, nothing happened to Mr. Sandusky other than having his youth program barred from campus and the confiscation of his keys to the athletic facilities. He was finally banned from the school in 2008, a full decade after he was first interviewed by campus authorities.
Late last year, Mr. Sandusky testified before the grand jury impaneled to investigate allegations that he sexually assaulted eight boys over a 15-year period. He was recently arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual assault.
Two other high-ranking PSU officials also have been charged with covering up Mr. Sandusky's crimes by not contacting police. They have resigned their positions to fight the charges. The school will pay their legal expenses, which should go over well with students hit with tuition increases in the coming years.
Like other once-unassailable institutions, the Penn State football team has often been seen as a luminous object, especially by those who consider a swath of central Pennsylvania nicknamed "Happy Valley" their spiritual home.
Happy Valley is a place where the children who are talented enough to play on coach JoePa's football team can be treated like demigods. Looks like all other kids are on their own in a place where a decade can pass before a man suspected of being a pedophile by those in power is seriously investigated or charged with a crime.
Perhaps we haven't come as far as we think we have since the days children were considered expendable.
First Published November 8, 2011 12:00 am