On the map of Pennsylvania, the municipalities of Wilkes-Barre, State College and Philadelphia form a neat triangle linking three sordid stories that collectively might be called “The Judges, The Coaches and The Priests.”
Within this relatively compact area of the world’s surface, and within the last decade-and-a-half, three horrific examples of child abuse have occurred. The geography is coincidental, but there are other common denominators: The victims were children, the abusers were men in power whom they looked up to and the abuse went on for years unabated.
In Wilkes-Barre, two judges conspired with two businessmen to railroad children who had done little or nothing wrong into a private juvenile detention facility. The businessmen made money on each incarcerated kid — and gratefully kicked back millions of dollars to the judges.
In State College, a former Penn State football defensive coach sexually abused boys, luring them with his connection to Penn State football and his own charity for disadvantaged youths. The late Joe Paterno, the legendary head coach, was tainted by the investigators’ conclusion that he failed to respond adequately to warnings about Sandusky’s crimes.
And in Philadelphia, priests sexually abused children, and reports of their behavior were suppressed by the Roman Catholic archdiocese. Monsignor William Lynn was found guilty of child endangerment in a trial that revealed that church officials downplayed child sexual abuse for many years to avoid scandal.
In each of these abominations, there was a conspiracy of silence. A group of people agreed to ignore an unpleasant truth of which they were aware.
It is not an unusual phenomenon. It happened in the South before the Civil War, when sexual relations between masters and slaves were common, and it happened some 15 years ago when baseball officials and sports journalists celebrated the sudden shattering of longstanding home run records in the face of clear evidence that it was accomplished with the aid of steroids.
For nearly six years in Luzerne County Juvenile Court, Judge Mark A. Ciavarella routinely violated the basic rights of children. Kids were shackled and sent away for months to a private detention facility that was paying him and his co-conspirator-judge kickbacks.
Their “crimes”: Disrespecting a teacher, fighting on the school bus, giving a cop the “finger,” shoplifting a $4 jar of nutmeg. An 11-year-old boy was hauled into court because his parents couldn’t pay a $488 fine imposed when he got in a dispute with his mother. Because his parents couldn’t pay the fine, Ciavarella had him taken away in shackles. He weighed 63 pounds.
Although juvenile court proceedings are not open to the public or media, there were always a dozen or more adults in the courtroom: stenographers and other court officers, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, police, and, attorneys with other cases all were witnesses.
Many of the onlookers were lawyers who had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution that was being violated. Likewise, silence prevailed around the playing fields and locker rooms of State College and the churches and parish houses of Philadelphia. Silence is an extremely effective form of lying. It only takes one person to speak out, but it takes many people to produce silence.
In his 2006 book, “The Elephant in the Room,” Eviatar Zerubavel, a Rutgers University sociologist, outlined “silence and denial in everyday life.” He concludes that silence feeds on itself. The longer we ignore the “elephants,” the larger they loom because each negation sets off a deeper pit of denial.
Some 200 years ago, Hans Christian Anderson wrote the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” describing a classic conspiracy of silence where nearly everyone refuses to acknowledge an obvious truth.
But for thousands of Pennsylvania children who suffered prolonged emotional stress and long-term psychological damage, the denial of shocking realities was no fairy tale.
WILLIAM ECENBARGER, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, is author of the new book “Kids for Cash,” an account of the Luzerne County judicial scandal.
Source: Penn Live