In the United States, a person charged with a crime remains innocent until proven guilty. For that reason, this article will allow the judicial system sole responsibility to declare judgment on everyone involved in the Penn State abuses case. For that reason, you'll see words like "alleged" in the paragraphs to follow.
Instead of piling more opinion and outrage on this issue, though, let's examine a common-sense lesson that seems overlooked.
Understandable disbelief exists at the apparent lack of aggressive reporting to authorities about events that allegedly took place. Debate swirls about who knew what and when. Mandatory reporting, a moral responsibility to report, and what might have happened with such reporting are topics that provide fuel and fervor to the public discussion taking place on the airwaves, in print, and across the electronic world.
One responder to a news article, who identified herself as a grandmother, made a weighty comment in response to a story focused on the responsibility to report suspected abuse cases to authorities. The article described a situation in which a person allegedly witnessed a horrendous act in progress. To paraphrase, she said that anyone who witnesses obvious child abuse taking place should first muster momentary courage to at least yell "Stop!"
Great point, Grandma. Evil acts thrive in darkness. Silence, turning the other way, or leaving the situation keeps the shades pulled down. Yes, reporting to authorities must take place. But in the moment, consider the child.
My son and daughter attend a high school where students developed an anti-bullying campaign built around the phrase "Don't be a zebra." A group chose this theme after learning that when a predator attacks a zebra, other zebras close by do nothing to help. Their campaign's applicability to our discussion is as obvious as a black-and-white striped coat. So why would an adult choose the zebra approach?
Fear of reprisal. Fear of losing a job. Fear of investigations. Fear of "my word against your word." Fear, fear, fear. But always for self, not for what's happening to the child.
If asked, most people likely would say that they would do something if they were to witness a dark act like child sexual abuse. Okay, maybe many would. Unfortunately, it seems, none of those people were around for the supposed 15 years of crimes in Pennsylvania. Rather than judging those people, too, let's look closer to home.
What about willingness to stop physical abuse as it happens? Or verbal abuse? This issue becomes complicated when considering that one person's version of abuse is another's version of discipline. To say something might appear to question a parent or guardian's authority to handle a child in the manner he or she sees fit. Possibly a parent has experienced an unusually hard season of life, a rough day at work, or a typical holiday shopping experience, and now overreacts. Unfortunately, this conundrum creates enough tension to scare people into inaction. Please don't go zebra so easily.
Instead, employ more common sense than fear. Weird stuff, strange acts that make you uncomfortable to watch or seem hard to understand should be stared at, asked about, or somehow not ignored. Even a little light lessens the scary darkness.
I've seen a few folks use harsh discipline with children and bit my tongue, and often I've wondered if I should have said something. On the other hand, I also said "Whoa!" to a dad who slapped a kid in line behind me at a store, and in doing so I created one mighty uncomfortable situation as we waited to pay for our purchases. My son, quite young at the time, was with me. As we walked to our car, he asked if I thought the guy was going to hit me. For a moment I did. But I also told my son that the dad stopped slapping the little boy and felt embarrassed. No one has the right to be cruel to another person.