If only more women had been in leadership roles at Penn State, the thinking goes, then child rapist Jerry Sandusky might have been led off in handcuffs many years and multiple victims ago. It’s an appealing narrative, easier to grasp than the 267-page Freeh report documenting how those in charge at Joe Paterno University rationalized protecting a pedophile over the disadvantaged boys he preyed on.
I’ve had similar thoughts about the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, and wondered if we’d have seen the same coast-to-coast cover-ups if there were more — okay, any — women at the top. In that case, not only aren’t there women around the tables where decisions get made, but there aren’t many around dinner tables, either, asking his Eminence what he did today after he knocks off for the evening. One of my saddest moments as a mom was answering my then-6-year-old son’s question about those scandals, which I was covering at the time: Had the bishops gotten together and decided to let bad things happen to kids? No, I told him,
there wasn’t any conspiracy; they didn’t even need one.
Yet as much as I’d like to see this theory widely tested — would women in control of powerful institutions be less likely to protect the brand at all costs? — I’m not convinced it’s anything but wishful thinking.
“The Penn State tragedy is a disaster rooted in sexism and man’s lack of sexual control,” argues Jason Whitlock in a much-discussed Fox Sports column. Women simply don’t understand such predatory sexual urges, he writes. Which is why “only a group of men could find Sandusky’s mental illness more sympathetic than the victims’ suffering,” he concludes.
Well, urges aside — oh and even now, I am fighting an intense desire to say more about that, Jason — not all of us are a cross between Mother Teresa and a Mama Grizzly. This is also a confused view of the challenge, which is surely less about sex than about self-preservation. And it’s a distraction, too, from what I see as the only true solution, which is the clear-eyed realization that cover-ups don’t work; they don’t resolve or even mitigate problems, but reliably compound them.
Still, much has been made of the fact that it was a woman, Vicky Triponey, who as Penn State’s vice president of student affairs challenged Paterno’s refusal to see that football players were held to the same disciplinary standards as other students.
Their lopsided struggle didn’t even play out in private, with Paterno openly mocking Triponey as “that lady in Old Main” who irony of ironies couldn’t possibly know how to handle young people since “she didn’t have kids.” She lost, of course, and left Penn State with her reputation temporarily in tatters.
It was another woman, the mother of a victim, who sent up the first flare about Sandusky back in 1998, though nothing came of it, and a female high school guidance counselor who reported the first case to the authorities. It was Sara Ganim, of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, who broke the story.
Other women played less wholesome roles in the scandal, however. Karen B. Peetz, who became chairwoman of the Penn State board of trustees in 2010, was in the job and on the case when Paterno leveraged a bigger salary and better perks for himself and his family, even as the posse was closing in. That package won’t be revisited, either, as Peetz made clear after The New York Times broke the story last week: “Contracts are contracts,” she said. Good to know.
It was Joe Pa’s wife, Sue Paterno, who reportedly pressured Triponey to go easy on one of the players in trouble. And it was Sandusky’s wife, Dottie Sandusky, who testified that she never heard or saw a thing while her husband’s victims were being assaulted — and screaming for help, one of them said — in her basement while she was home.
Some of the angriest e-mails I received after reporting on the Sandusky trial were from female Penn State fans, staunchly defending the school’s handling of the matter even after he was found guilty on 45 counts, in cases involving 10 boys over 15 years.
And I can’t say I was surprised. In reporting on the way my own alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, has handled reports of sexual assaults, I never detected any gender divide in the wagon-circling of administrators and trustees, which was definitely a coed event.
Then there was the football scandal at Colorado University a few years back. When players there were accused, and not for the first time, of setting recruits up to rape drunk women, the response of the school’s female president, Elizabeth Hoffman, was to support the athletic director and football coach in denying there was a problem.
Heads eventually rolled, and the university settled a civil lawsuit brought by some of the women — but not before Hoffman testified in defense of the slur many women most abhor. Hey, she said in a deposition, Chaucer used it as a term of endearment.
“Because she is a medieval scholar,” a university spokeswoman dutifully clarified, “she is also aware of the long history of the word.”
In the even longer history of those in power protecting it at the expense of people, women have less practice, but show more promise than I wish were the case.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.