Britain is having its own Penn State moment right now.
A beloved, tracksuit-wearing television host called Jimmy Saville - who was practically a fixture on the BBC since the 1970s (and a vividly remembered icon of my own childhood) was recently exposed as an alleged sexual predator in a chilling documentary called Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile.
I’m not the only one to have been utterly floored by these accusations. Millions of British kids just like me grew up in awe of the cigar-chomping, silver-haired Savile – a man who could literally make “dreams come true” via his signature show “Jim’ll Fix It.”
Yet according to the filmmakers at ITV, this affable man allegedly raped dozens of underage girls during his days on television. What’s even worse? He allegedly did so under the watchful eyes of benevolent “Auntie Beeb,” our nickname for the BBC.
It’s a story that has eerie parallels with another recent scandal – that of Penn State, and their disgraced former football coach Jerry Sandusky. Like with the scandal of Jimmy Savile and the BBC’s alleged cover up of his crimes, the Penn State football community seemingly spent years protecting Sandusky from investigation and allowed him to abuse dozens of boys they could have protected.
At the time, everybody had said this moral failure was “a Penn State thing.” They blamed the obsessive football culture of that great Big Ten school. But the Jimmy Savile revelation weakens that argument. Other recent news stories do the same.
The fact that so many similar organizations – the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America to name just two – have covered up decades of abuse suggests that this sort of thing isn’t the exception in cases of horrific sexual abuse, but the rule.
But how and why do we allow this to happen?
It’s easy right now, sitting in front of our computer screens, to say that “we” would never think of condoning, ignoring or allowing such a thing to happen in front of us, but the terrifying truth is that “we” – people like you and I – do it all the time.
The reason institutionalized sexual abuse exists at all is precisely because supposedly good and moral people – like priests, and scout leaders and football coaches – allow sexual abuse and other horrific offenses to be committed where they live and work.
But why? Why does this happen so often, and on such a huge scale?
I’m scared that, at the end of the day, it’s simply how life works.
Just look at Jimmy Savile. We blame the folks at the BBC for “covering up” his decades of alleged abuse, but what did they really “cover”? The newspapers talk about how colleagues claimed there “had long been rumors” about Savile (even nicknaming him “Jim’ll Fuck It” to parody his show “Jim’ll Fix It”) but that’s what they always were – rumors. You can’t act on rumors...Can you?
I imagine it was the same at Penn State. When Mike McQueary walked in on Sandusky raping a child, he saw the abuse being committed. Joe Paterno was told that it had happened. After that it becomes “we’d heard that it had happened” and then it just becomes rumor and suspicion. Nobody acts on rumor and suspicion, especially when there’s a big name like Jerry Sandusky or Jimmy Savile involved.
Curious that they share the same initials.
Nobody’s going to do anything about rumors. Not the executives at the BBC. Not the bishops in the Catholic Church. Not even the leaders of the Boy Scouts of America. Rumors can be easily dismissed. And that’s the problem; because sometimes they turn out to be absolutely, horrifically, unforgivably true.
I wonder if the ease with which people are willing to ignore rumors stems from some of the worst of human nature – like the psychological weaknesses identified during the Milgram experiment in Yale University in 1963.
Those experiments – in which students willingly blasted helpless test subjects with electric shocks – revealed that it’s human nature to be obedient to authority, even when that obedience violates our deepest moral and ethical beliefs and could potentially cause death or permanent injury to another human being. Nazis used to claim “I was only following orders,” but depending on the authority those orders come from, that’s how people actually operate.
And what bigger authority is there than the Catholic Church? Or the Boy Scouts of America? Or even the legendary football coaches of Penn State?
The realization that people are programmed to be complicit to crimes like those of Sandusky or Savile explains why they were allowed to carry on abusing children for decades with the organizations that sheltered them looking the other way, or sometimes even protecting them.
It also explains why dozens of people come forward years after the abuse to testify about it, but never did anything about it at the time.
It’s a kind of mass brainwashing – the same sort of thing that allowed German citizens to send Jews off the gas chambers, or soldiers in Africa to hack the arms from children and rape women to death.
It’s utterly, utterly terrifying.
And, what’s more, it’s our responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again – even if that’s a responsibility we, as a society, seem to have fallen short on again and again.
As a Brit, the scandal of Jimmy Savile teaches me something that the scandal of Jerry Sandusky should have taught me even earlier: To never be silent. To never be complicit. To never sacrifice what I believe to be ethically or morally right for the sake of “fitting in” or “not causing a fuss.”
Because it’s all too easy for us little guys to be shrouded in the shadows of big, important, famous people like Sandusky and Savile...but that’s what allowed them to get away with their crimes in the first place.