Abject Moral Failures

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

For those of you who might somehow have missed it, the football program at Pennsylvania State University is being rocked by one of the most awful scandals in memory. The scandal does say a lot about the dangerously insular culture of major college sports, but the central awfulness of the story goes far beyond sport. I will neither describe all of the disgusting incidents in detail, nor will I provide a link to the indictment of two university officials who tried to cover up the scandal. (Any search engine will immediately bring up thousands of links to this story, I am sure. Today's op-ed by Maureen Dowd in the NYT is excellent.)

The facts of the central incident in the case should be more than enough to explain why everyone is so outraged: a Penn State assistant football coach walked into the shower room one day in 2002, saw a former assistant coach anally raping a 10-year-old boy, went home, and reported the incident to the head coach, Joe Paterno, the next day. Paterno then reported the incident to his nominal boss (although, at Penn State, no one is Paterno's boss) the following day. No one ever called the police, nor did they try to find out if the boy was OK. Other facts indicate that this was hardly an isolated incident.

Paterno has not been charged with a crime, but it is clear that he completely failed as a human being. As I write this, early on Wednesday afternoon (to be published tomorrow morning), the latest news is that Paterno has announced his retirement at the end of this season. That could change any minute, however, given how quickly the story is moving. It is hard to see how the university can allow this to continue even another day. [Update: Paterno was, indeed, fired a few hours after I wrote this post.]

The Penn State story broke this past weekend. By pure coincidence, on Saturday afternoon I saw a new film called "Oranges and Sunshine," starring Emily Watson. That film dramatizes a scandal of which I (and, I suspect, nearly everyone in this country) was completely ignorant. Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a social worker in Nottingham in 1986 who discovered that the British and Australian governments had engaged in a large-scale program after WWII to send unaccompanied children (ages 5-14, apparently) to Australia. Some of the children were orphans, and others had been put up for adoption. At least some of the children were taken from parents under false pretenses. It is clear, in any case, that these were not simply abandoned children who longed for a better life elsewhere.

What awaited these children on the other side of the world was horrifying. They were turned into slaves -- quite literally slaves. They were put to work carrying heavy stones on construction sites, doing janitorial work, and being forced to perform other unskilled, uncompensated labor. (They were even forced, as adults, to repay their "hosts" for room and board.) They were often sent to isolated places from which there was no escape. Discipline was severe and cruel.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the story is that the children were often subjected to sexual abuse. The film includes stories from now-grown victims who were sent to live with priests, who repeatedly violated them sexually throughout their childhoods.

Much of the film is devoted to showing how Humphreys slowly unearthed the terrible truth, with growing resistance from government and church leaders as she found more and more ugly detail. (The worst defenders of the church also verbally abused her, issued death threats, and attacked her home.)

To the extent that such a story could have an ending that might be called happy, the British government finally -- 24 years after Humphreys first began to learn of what had happened -- issued an official apology to the victims, delivered by then-PM Gordon Brown in 2010.

Two more pertinent facts: The British/Australian program lasted for 25 years, through 1970; and the total number of children involved in this completely illegal program was 130,000.

Every instance of child abuse is an outrage. Every instance of an adult failing to do what is necessary to stop child abuse is an abject moral failure. When entire institutions are complicit in systematic child abuse, there are no words to describe the immorality.