After days of graphic testimony, the conviction of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of sexual assault came as no surprise. But it had been a surprise when Sandusky was arrested in November after 15 years of egregious behavior that many in the Penn State community had been aware of. Sadly, Americans often turn a blind eye when the powerful abuse the weak.
For fifty years, Sandusky had loomed large in the State College community, playing a major role in "Happy Valley." First he was a star football player on the illustrious Penn State team, "the Nittany Lions." Beginning in 1969, he became an assistant coach, first tutoring linebackers and then rising to the position of defensive coordinator -- second in command to the famous coach Joe Paterno. At one time Sandusky was considered Paterno's heir apparent, but in 1999 something happened and, at the end of the season, Sandusky abruptly retired. While he quit coaching, he remained a visible presence at Penn State. Sandusky focused on "The Second Mile," an organization he founded to care for foster children, taking boys to Penn State games and into the athletic facilities.
The first allegation against Sandusky surfaced in 1999, ten years before the grand jury investigation that culminated in his arrest. Over the next decade several sexual assault reports involving Sandusky were dismissed either by the State College police or Penn State officials. The most troubling was the handling of a 2002 shower-room assault witnessed by Penn State coach Mike McQueary. He reported the attack to Paterno, who passed it on to the Athletic Director, and it eventually came to the attention of the Penn State President. As a result, Sandusky was prohibited from bringing children on campus. (Nine years later, the Athletic Director and President were belatedly fired; as was Paterno, who died of cancer in January.)
There's every indication that, in 1999, Paterno and other Penn State officials recognized Sandusky was a sexual predator and forced him off the football staff. But they didn't take decisive action then, or in 2002, or on numerous other occasions. For ten years there was a "gentleman's agreement" to handle Sandusky informally.
As abhorrent as Sandusky's behavior is, it's not an isolated incident. The Department of Justice reports, "Approximately one in four girls and one in seven boys are sexually assaulted before the age of 18." (There are 750,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S.) Sexual assault is a subset of the category "child abuse and neglect" and in 2010, 5.9 million children were reported as suffering abuse or neglect.
These shocking numbers reflect a grim reality: in the U.S. the powerful routinely abuse the weak. Parents abuse their children. Bosses harass their female employees. Employers pay substandard wages or hire only "temporary" workers. Companies pay females less than males for doing comparable work. Corporations systematically pollute the environment. And on and on.
Americans are aware that the powerful abuse the weak but we often turn a blind eye because we don't want to get involved. That's what happened at Penn State; University leaders knew that Jerry Sandusky was a sexual predator but they chose to not report it to the police. And so he continued to abuse boys for a long decade.
Over the past thirty years, economic inequality has increased. Since 2007 the average American family's net worth "has dropped by nearly 40 percent" -- from $126,400 to $77,300 -- wiping out 18 years' worth of accumulated wealth." In 2010 the wealthiest one percent captured 93 percent of per-capita real income gains, another example of the powerful abusing the weak.
It's not that Americans aren't aware of economic abuse. Writing in the New York Review, journalist Michael Tomasky observed that swing voters believe economic inequality "should be addressed, but it's not a top priority for them, and they think that it is better addressed by expanding economic opportunity (69 percent) than ensuring that the rich pay more in taxes (24 percent)." There's no sense of outrage.
Perhaps that's because these voters don't understand how bad the problem is. A recent study indicated that Americans grossly underestimate the wealth gap. They think the top 20 percent have about 50 percent of the wealth but they actually control 85 percent -- and the top one percent controls 35 percent.
The wealthiest one percent don't want to talk about economic abuse. That's reflected in Mitt Romney's attitude. When questioned on the Today Show about widespread concern regarding economic inequality, Romney said, "I think [this concern is] about envy. I think it's about class warfare" I think it's fine to talk about those things [the unequal distribution of wealth and power] in quiet rooms." Romney honors a "gentleman's agreement" to not discuss the subject, to turn a blind eye to abuse.