High Holidays | Religion & Jewish Life

Teshuvah and Penn State: the sin of rushing to judgment

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (JTA) — In our busy lives, there are lots of decisions to make. Though we know that quick judgments made without all the facts can be faulty, we do not have the time to dwell on each decision, and we learn to live with a kind of necessary impatience. Whether it is a route across town, what we want for lunch or the selection of a shirt to wear, we need to make our choices quickly and then get on with the day.

Thus do we approach many things in life — including stories in the news. Even when the story is important, we want to finish it quickly. We want to know what happened and why it happened, and we want to get some kind of expeditious resolution (lesson learned) before we move on.

The problem, however, is that some stories do not conform to our impatience. Complex events elude quick and simple conclusions and are not conducive to the few minutes we are willing to give them.

Of course, when we are the ones involved in controversy — when our reputations are at risk and our feelings are being battered — we want plenty of time to defend ourselves. Many of us have known the frustration and hurt of being falsely accused, and I suspect that this fear of false accusation is at the heart of our legal system’s many safeguards. “Innocent until proven guilty” is no abstract principle. It is one of our nation’s most important protections.

The problem, however, is that the time delays necessary for our day in court – all those procedures and facts — can get in the way of a good story. Although not every accusation leads to an indictment, and not every indictment leads to a conviction, there is that rush of excitement when evil is exposed and we get to watch the bad guys squirm. In many ways, the truth seems less important than the fun and titillation of lashon hara (gossip, the “evil tongue”).

This year, I am particularly aware of our human tendency to rush to judgment, and of the injustice it can cause, because I live in a town that has been at the center of an enormous news story. State College, Pa., the home of Penn State University, has been rocked by the indictment and conviction of Jerry Sandusky, the former football coach who sexually victimized a number of young boys. That this happened is horrible enough, but the revelations were particularly shocking to this small town because Sandusky was such an integral part of the community’s social fabric. When a trusted and respected member of the community turned out to be a pedophile — a serial pedophile — people were stunned and wondered how their judgment could have been so wrong, their trust so abused. There was grief that the crimes were committed, sympathy for the victims and anger that no one saw through the criminal’s deception.

This anger is overwhelming, and people have furiously sought places to focus it. One would have thought that the rage would have been addressed by the criminal’s arrest, trial, conviction and incarceration, but this has not been the case. The outrage is too great for the criminal alone and from the beginning, allegations and stories of a highly placed conspiracy have become well known and frequently repeated.

Here’s what this story says: Coach Sandusky’s criminal activities were well known at the highest levels of the university administration. The men at the top of the Penn State power structure did not care about his crimes, allowed them to continue on campus, and then conspired to conceal them for the sake of the football program. As everyone knows, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Therefore, people as powerful as Coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier must have been corrupt. They must have known everything that was transpiring on campus, and their corruption included a criminal conspiracy to cover up child abuse.

Of course, we do not actually know any of these things. While this story has been repeated again and again, the charges have never been proven. Indeed, no grand jury or governmental prosecutor has ever even alleged these accusations. What we have is a rush to judgment and a conspiratorial tale that is more entertaining than factual.

In the very long and complicated Freeh Report, a team of investigators looked into some of the evidence and concluded that high administrators did not adequately respond to this situation. They based their opinion on some of the evidence, but there is additional evidence and other possible interpretations of it. Inasmuch as the university authorities reported the suspicious behavior to the district attorney, and inasmuch as the district attorney’s official investigation did not find enough evidence for an indictment, one could conclude that the university leaders did their jobs. One could conclude that the criminal was deceiving people — as criminals are wont to do. In other words, rather than imagining a conspiracy that allowed Sandusky to continue his crimes, one could conclude that his deception worked. Therefore and tragically, he was able to continue his criminal behavior.

A careful reading of the Freeh Report would have revealed this possible interpretation, but reading the report would have been tedious and taken a long time. Besides, what people wanted was a conclusion and dramatic punishment. Public anxiety demanded answers and action immediately. So instead of a careful discussion of the Freeh Report’s opinions and some patience as the legal system worked its slow process, we saw the NCAA and its hurried imposition of dramatic sanctions rescue public patience. In lieu of an actual investigation, the NCAA gave us closure. Much less interested in the truth than in resolution, many people are happy with the penalties, regardless of whether they are properly directed. Instead of fact finding and legal dilly-dallying, this crisis was met with a swift and decisive rush to judgment.The important thing is that we see someone punished; now we can then get on with other concerns.

In the interest of clear thinking and the possibility of justice, it is important, however, to remind everyone that the oft-repeated and salacious stories have not been proven. In other words, the common knowledge of a high university conspiracy and the NCAA sanctions are based on nothing more than gossip, and that is a shanda — a shame and a scandal in and of itself.

As mortified as I am about the terrible things Jerry Sandusky is convicted of doing, I am also disappointed in the way that the rest of this story is being told. Rushing to judgment does not make for justice, and we should all know better. Our Jewish tradition teaches that relying on premature conclusions and gossip is not just — that this kind of behavior is unfair and sinful. I believe that many people in the media, in the NCAA and in the public are guilty of these sins this year.

For the sin of believing gossip, for the sin of repeating it and for the sin of rushing to judgment, many of us have some  teshuvah, repentance, to do.

(David E. Ostrich is rabbi of Congregation Brit Shalom in State College, Pa.)