Stepping from the sidewalk to the car I glanced down,
watched an earthworm struggle under a shard of ice and melted snow,
trapped in the gutter by the autumn storm.
The urge to pluck it from its icy grave was strong;
but then what?
I shut the door and we sped toward church,
leaving God’s creature to fend for itself.
I wrote that poem a couple days ago about an image that had stayed with me since last Sunday morning, the day after 8 inches of snow fell here in a bizarre late October storm. The contrast of winter-on-fall was stark, with snow covering porch pumpkins, and branches full of autumn leaves drooping under the weight of the white stuff.
The worm caught my eye for just a moment, but its futile struggle held my attention for a week. If there had been a nearby patch of earth for him to burrow into I probably would have scooped him up and set him free. But everything was buried under snow. And we were in a hurry.
Last night I read the 23-page grand jury report indicting former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on 40 criminal counts stemming from sexual misconduct with eight male victims over the course of several years. Athletic Director Tim Curley and Penn State’s vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz were charged with perjury and failing to report what they knew about the allegations.
As I read the report, my heart broke for those boys, shattering anew with each sickening detail of abuse, and how they were further abused by the ones who witnessed and heard of the assaults, yet essentially did nothing. I thought about the worm that I watched struggle, about how it felt to look down on something so much smaller and more insignificant than I. And I thought about how the decision to do nothing felt, and still feels.
We are called — by God, by humanity, by our spiritual selves — to care for the smallest among us, the weakest, the neediest. We are called to give a voice to the voiceless. The irony is that the boys Sandusky allegedly victimized were plucked from The Second Mile, Sandusky’s own foundation he started to help underprivileged boys. They were boys from broken homes, boys as young as 7 and 8 who maybe didn’t have a father figure, or a hot meal every night, or much of a chance at the easy confidence and unguarded potential that comes with having a stable home life. Can you imagine how an 8-year-old boy who’s used to wearing second-hand clothes and experiencing the world mostly through a TV screen in his living room, alone, feels when he’s suddenly invited to a Penn State football game? When he’s taken on trips and to tailgates, given gifts and meals and special access to a big-name, Division I football team’s facilities?
I cried and cried as I read, overwhelmed with stunned sorrow for the boys who were repeatedly let down by those they looked up to the most. My friends and I volunteered with The Second Mile during our time at Penn State. I remember meeting up with the kids at a park, and taking them ice skating. Like most kids, they were engaging and affectionate. They seemed happy.
On The Second Mile’s website, under “About Us,” it says:
“Many children face adversity even before they understand how to dream. The Second Mile, founded in 1977 in State College, Pennsylvania, is a statewide non-profit organization for children who need additional support and who would benefit from positive human contact.”
Positive human contact. From the evidence gathered, it seems its founder tossed aside that mission to fulfill his own criminally deviant desires. But it’s so much worse than Sandusky assaulting boys. Because if the allegations are true, these boys were the victims of another crime — the crime of decisive inaction by those who knew what was happening.
Mike Wise, a columnist with The Washington Post, summarized part of the report:
“According to the attorney general’s office, in 2002 a graduate student assistant went to Paterno’s home the day after he saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the shower late at night at Lasch Football Building on the Penn State campus. Paterno told Curley the next day.
About 10 days after the incident, Curley and Schultz met with the graduate assistant who had witnessed the abuse. Their executive action, according to the grand jury report: They told Sandusky that he could not bring any children from his foundation into the football building any more.
No one from Penn State — not Paterno, not the human neckties, no one — ever reported the alleged incident to law enforcement, which the grand jury report says is required under Pennsylvania law.”
According to the report, the grad student was 28 years old. And what he witnessed was (skip this part if you don’t want to throw up) “a naked boy, whose age he estimated to be 10 years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky.”
The report reads as if these grown, responsible men were playing a dangerously sabotaging round of Telephone, that kid’s game of telling and retelling a story that magically changes from ear to ear. The account of what happened morphs from “anal sex” to “something of a sexual nature” to “inappropriate conduct” to “horsing around.”
But this wasn’t a game, and this wasn’t “horsing around.” This was an eyewitness account of the rape of a child. And neither the grad student, nor Paterno, nor Curley, nor Schulz, nor university president Graham Spanier EVER called police?? The thought is unconscionable. In the report, there isn’t even mention of any of them trying to identify the boy, to tell his parents what had happened to him — to help him.
Like that worm wriggling slowly under the sheer shard of ice, they saw his colossal struggle for just a moment. And they left God’s creature to fend for himself.
For a week now, I’ve been thinking about a damn earthworm stuck in icy water that I didn’t help. It’s been NINE YEARS — and several more victims — since that grad student saw what he saw and started a chain of inaction that has cost God only knows how many young men their childhoods, their self esteem, their mental, emotional and physical well-being.
If these allegations are indeed true, the Second Mile’s website is tragically, hauntingly accurate: “Many children face adversity even before they understand how to dream.”
We are called to help the weakest among us. And there is no football program, coach or university more valuable than a single boy’s life. It’s too little, too late, but I hope everyone involved — and I mean everyone — is held accountable for their crimes.
“When we stood at childhood’s gate,
shapeless in the hands of fate.
Though didst mold us dear old State,
Dear old State, dear old State.
May no act of ours bring shame
to one heart that loves thy name;
may our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.”