Last year I had a neighbor knock on my door. She asked me to come out into the hallway so she could talk to me about what she should do.
“Do I call the police?” she said. “My husband thinks I shouldn’t get involved.”
As I stood in the hallway and listened to her tell me that two children — ages five and three — had been outside all afternoon by themselves, I knew she had come to the right person. She had assessed my character correctly and by extension her own limitations: she didn’t want to cause trouble in her relationship, but knew she had to do something too. And that was finding someone who would call the police.
The police came and the children were taken away. I learned that despite their small frames and young ages, they had already lived a difficult life: their parents were drug addicted and they had bounced around to far-flung family members who were overwhelmed and could not properly care for them. In their two bedroom apartment, there were three adults, two children and one infant. A 16-year-old aunt was charged with their care on this particular day.
Nothing will break your heart more than watching a five-year-old boy try to baracade himself between a door and the police officers he does not trust. He did not need a superhero costume pumped full of fake biceps to face his Goliath, all he needed was every adult he ever trusted to let him down.
When I was a Girl Scout leader, I had serious suspicions about the home life of one of the girls. As a mandatory reporter, I documented these suspicions and I talked to my co-leader. Strange men dropped her off for meetings, they slept at her house, people were always in and out, and her mother was facing illness after illness. This girl clung to the co-leader and told us, without us asking, that she did not want one of the men to take her on our trip to New York City. It was at this point that I contacted Child Protective Services with a heavy heart. My co-leader did not want me to do it; fearing the family’s potential stigma from a false report. I sympathized with her concerns, but ultimately I handed over my documentation and let the proper authorities make the ultimate decision.
I did what I had to do to protect that girl and those two children. I took action.
I am not a stand up citizen. I make bad decisions, I have parking tickets, I have horrible credit, I have made jokes at the expense of others, and I curse a lot. But when I die, here’s what cannot be said: I put myself before the safety of children.
You can never say that.
I can say that about Joe Paterno and I can also say it about former Penn State President Graham B. Spanier, former Athletic Director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, a university vice president. And there’s a special place in Hell for Jerry Sandusky.
A few years ago I read The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million. It’s about the Holocaust. This is not a cliche reference. Please read this book one day because the overwhelming theme is this: the Holocaust did not happen because of Hitler and his minions. No, it happened — at its most simplistic — because a lot of good people turned the other way. They, in the moment, made the wrong decision. Without all of that silence, Hitler would never have been powerful. Without fear, six million Jews would never have died.
When alumni and current students and football fans chant “We are Penn State!!” they are good people making the wrong decision. Their screams and chants are in fact deafening silence for the victims. Of the true monstrosity of their university. When those same people defend Paterno and worship him in bronze, they look the other way at evil.
And I am not a God-fearing person.
But when someone knocks on my door for help, I answer.
You can read the 162-page Freeh report here.