The Witness documentary about Kitty Genovese chronicles Bill Genovese’s quest to find out why not one of the reported thirty-eight witnesses stepped in to help his beloved older sister (Salomon, 2015). After her murder in 1964, intense grief and inner turmoil plagued Bill Genovese’s life until, four decades later, he set out proactively to find the truth. Through the course of his personal investigation, his questions multiplied exponentially—specifically those about human nature.
Bill Genovese tracked down and spoke with witnesses who had heard or seen portions of Winston Moseley’s two attacks on Kitty. The Witness shows an interview in which a former neighbor claimed to have called the police. Records of these calls cannot be found. At the end of the day, Bill Genovese, along with the rest of us, has to decide whether or not to take her word for it.
This suggests that "diffusion of responsibility" can affect people, but, it also gets at another aspect of human nature: the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions. Genovese is quoted in an article in the Washington Post (Merry, 2016, Jun 29),
I would say it a little less delicately. It’s like we unconsciously make up bullshit, then we believe, because we repeat it in our heads many times until it becomes part of our life story.
Let’s assume this neighbor was telling the truth. What did she do after she hung up with the police? Considering that it was 1964, her choices included the following: 1) She could continue to look out the window to ensure that the police showed up; 2) she could simply go back to bed thinking the police would handle it; 3) she could go outside to see what was going on with the woman screaming for help; and/or, 4) as the smartest and safest decision, she could rouse other neighbors to solicit their help in apprehending the violent happening outside their residence. Tragically for Kitty Genovese, this neighbor most likely either continued to look out the window, or crawled back into bed.
It is well-established that Kitty Genovese’s tragic murder was partially witnessed/heard by a few people, the aforementioned neighbor among them, but, certainly not 38, as reported by The New York Times. The record was set straight by Jim Rasenberger in the article he contributed to American Heritage (2006):
The true number of eyewitnesses was not 38 but 6 or 7. To be sure, far more residents heard something, but the perceptions of eyewitnesses and ear-witnesses alike were mostly fleeting and inchoate. Many of the witnesses claimed that they did not grasp what was happening; they thought it was a lovers’ quarrel or an argument spilling out of the Old Bailey bar on Austin Street. The Times insinuated that such excuses were disingenuous, but all those psychology studies spawned by the case suggest otherwise. It’s generally not stone-cold indifference that prevents people from pitching in during emergencies, psychologists now agree. It’s states of mind more familiar to most of us: confusion, fear, misapprehension, uncertainty.
It took The New York Times fifty-two years to address their misrepresentation of the facts.
While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully-aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses, and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling. There were two attacks, not three. And, afterward, two people did call the police. A 70-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Ms. Genovese died on the way to a hospital. (The New York Times, 2016)
There was no need for The New York Times to grossly exaggerate the reporting of Kitty Genovese’ murder. One inactive bystander in a position to truly help is one too many.
Bystanders in the Penn State sex scandal
Another sensational story—the Penn State Sex Scandal—absolutely stunned America in 2011, with sickening details that described Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky sexually molesting a dozen boys over the years in the Penn State locker room showers. After his boss, well-renowned Penn State coach, Joe Paterno, kept the pedophile on the coaching staff for three decades, Sandusky was arrested, tried, and incarcerated for no less than 30 years. (CNN Library, 2013). With the culprit immediately identified, America’s eyes turned to the whistle-blower, former Penn State football player and assistant coach, Mike McQueary.
Upon hearing and witnessing Sandusky sexually abusing an underage boy in the showers of Penn State’s Lasch Building, McQueary slammed lockers to alert them of his presence, thus ending a rape. The story is one Mr. McQueary has told and repeated, one he thinks of every day.
At around 9 p.m. on Feb. 9, 2001, he headed back to work after watching the film, “Rudy.” A graduate assistant at that time, he went to an auxiliary locker room in the Lasch Building to drop off a new pair of sneakers. Before he opened the door, McQueary said, he heard slapping sounds. When he entered, he looked in the mirror and saw Sandusky and a young boy in the shower together “in a severely inappropriate position.” McQueary slammed his locker, saw that the two in the shower had separated and were standing side-to-side looking at him, and left the room (Nesbitt, 2016, Nov 6).
Hypothetically speaking, what would Coach Mike McQueary do if it were his own son in an inappropriate position with Coach Sandusky? It goes without saying that he would step into the shower, jerk his child away from evil incarnate, and call the police immediately. That is, if he had not already punched the daylights out of the deranged man. Why was another child’s life more expendable in the hands of this very sick man? That boy needed rescuing, and Mike McQueary left him behind.
McQueary said he then went up to his office. "I wasn't thinking 100 percent right," he testified. "I'm used to pressure situations, but that's more than I could handle at the time" (Kemeny, 2012, Jun 12).
It may have been too much for McQueary, but let's consider the boy who was left alone with Jerry Sandusky? That is certainly a situation beyond any child’s capabilities to understand much less handle. Granted, in a state of extreme anxiety, McQueary called his father, who directed him to Coach Paterno, who in turn notified powers-that-be at Penn State. Unfortunately, the information was watered down from one person to the next; and an opportunity to put a pedophile behind bars was missed (Nesbitt, 2016). Approximately a decade went by before another reckoning of Sandusky came about, thus paving the way for him to molest other boys.
Whether he was frozen, apathetic, or “not thinking 100 percent right,” Mike McQueary is an example of “diffusion of responsibility.” He may have interrupted the sexual assault by slamming locker doors, but he did not separate prey from predator. He certainly had the physical prowess over the predator, an older man, to do so.
To be fair to McQueary, it appears that Sandusky’s demons were an open secret. According to CNN's timeline of accusations and reports (CNN Library, 2013), the following people had an inkling of the monster in their midst:
- All those involved with a 1998 investigation of Sandusky, initiated by the mother of a victim
- Members of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare
- Psychologists Alycia Chambers and John Seasock
- District Attorney and Penn State University Police
- Centre County Office of Children and Youth Services
- James Calhoun, a janitor at Penn State, who in 2000, like McQueary, witnessed Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy in the showers
- Calhoun’s colleague to whom he reported what he saw
- Calhoun’s supervisor to whom he reported what he saw
- Tim Curley, Penn State Athletic Director
- Gary Schultz, Penn State Senior VP for Finance and Business
- Graham Spanier, President of Penn State University
- Jack Raykovitz, President of Second Mile charity.
- A local high school where Sandusky volunteered, and its principal and athletic coaches
According to court documents, Joe Paterno was made aware of Sandusky’s abuse of young boys as early as 1976. According to documents unsealed Tuesday in a Philadelphia courthouse, Penn State's Joe Paterno had dismissed a sexual assault complaint made by a 14-year-old boy against Coach Sandusky in 1976; and the school was made aware of other allegations long before he was arrested in 2011.
A person deposed as part of an ongoing insurance lawsuit was asked by a lawyer if Paterno said, “I don’t want to hear about any of that kind of stuff, I have a football season to worry about” (Perez, 2016, Jul 12).
Some of the above-named entities are most certainly responsible for the “diffusion of responsibility.” Boys suffered, and certainly continue to suffer today as a result. Americans have vilified Mike McQueary for what they consider inaction on his part that resulted in more opportunities for Sandusky to prey on other boys. Most people likely believe that merely reporting an incident of such sensitive nature is not enough. With knowledge of what Sandusky did in the showers to the unidentified boy, how did McQueary tolerate Sandusky’s presence at Penn State over the next decade?
McQueary is currently living at his parents' home, separated from his wife, and estranged from his daughter (Nesbitt, 2016). He has applied for jobs in football and golf, medical sales and insurance, human resources and retail. In his latest try, according to a document filed at the back of Exhibit 79 of the court records, an application was submitted in early August to be a sales clerk or shift manager at the Rite Aid store a mile and a half from his parents’ home. McQuery has stated (Nesbitt, 2016),
I did a damn good thing. And I can’t get a job at darn Rite Aid?
He did do a good thing, but people have not forgiven him for leaving that boy in the showers in 2001. Mike McQueary will be just fine, though, since, for defamation and for damage he professed has resulted from Penn State’s handling of the Sandusky child sexual abuse case, a jury awarded him $7.3 million in a whistle-blower lawsuit against the university. Further, there is a good possibility that he will be awarded even more money; thus, there will be no need for the job at Rite Aid.
More diffusers of responsibility
Then there are the Catholic Church sex scandals; and, articles upon articles have been written on this subject, along with the award-winning movie, Spotlight (McCarthy, 2015). The bottom line is that thousands of children worldwide have been abused by priests of the Catholic Church; and there were most definitely apathetic bystanders and diffusers of responsibility of varying degrees, who have allowed this to happen to innocent children.
We are all too human, and we do not always make the best decisions in unexpected situations. There are certainly circumstances in which it is wise to stay away and to notify the appropriate authorities. Nevertheless, our very first instinct should always be to do what we can to help our neighbor and fellow man. When I was a young adult working in midtown Atlanta, I witnessed an attack taking place as I walked to my car in the evening after work. A man was lying prostrate in the middle of Ponce De Leon Avenue by the Fox Theater, with a rough-looking couple savagely kicking and punching him. I, along with a colleague, turned around to put ourselves a safe distance away from this scene, but not before we saw a parking lot attendant witnessing the attack. We assumed he would handle what we guessed may have been a drug deal gone bad. In retrospect, I now recognize that my colleague and I diffused responsibility.
One criterion that defines a hero is active involvement for the benefit of others. Tragically, there were no heroes in Kew Gardens the night that Kitty Genovese was murdered. Fortunately for Bill Genovese, the trenches of war are full of them. Bill, who lost both of his legs while serving our country in Vietnam, said this (Garcia, 2016, Jun 3),
For a moment, lying alone in a rice paddy, injured and in shock, I understood what Kitty must have felt. I thought no one was going to notice me there, but then my fellow Marines rescued me.
However, the findings from his investigation of Kitty's murder gave Genovese comfort in knowing that his sister did not die alone. She died in the arms of her friend, Sophie Farrar, who stepped out of her apartment to help.
In the movie, Bill Genovese interviewed an editor from another New York publication who shelved findings that The New York Times had grossly misrepresented the truth. When questioned, the editor responded, "It's the New York Times." It was clear that this newspaper was not going to risk what Abe Rosenthal might do to their careers. Likewise for those at Penn State where Coach Joe Paterno was practically revered as a god. David Zirin, Sports Editor at The Nation, said this (Zirin, 2012, Jan 22),
Let Paterno's last teachable moment be this: if your football coach is the highest paid, most revered person on your campus, you have a problem. If your school wins multiple championships, and a booster drops money to build a statue of the coach, tear it the hell down. And if you think children are being raped, the minimum just isn't good enough, no matter whether or not you wear a crown.
Exactly. No persons or institutions should be elevated to such a high level of power and importance that they are untouchable for the consequences of their [in]actions and decisions. For the actions and inactions of The New York Times, Bell Genovese and his family tragically suffered the consequences in its place.
CNN Library. (2013, Oct 28). Penn State Scandal Fast Facts. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/28/us/penn-state-scandal-fast-facts/
Garcia, M. (2016, Jun 3). The Witness: Kitty Genovese's brother unravels the truth behind her infamous murder. Biography. Retrieved from http://www.biography.com/news/kitty-genovese-the-witness-movie
Kemeny, M. (2012, Jun 12). Jerry Sandusky trial: Mike McQueary says he 'wasn't thinking right' after seeing Sandusky in shower with boy. Penn Live. Retrieved from http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2012/06/jerry_sandusky_trial_mike_mcqu.html
McCarthy, T. [Director]. (2015). Spotlight. [Motion Picture]. USA: Open Road Films.
Merry, S. (2016, Jun 29). Her shocking murder became the stuff of legend. But everyone got the story wrong. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/her-shocking-murder-became-the-stuff-of-legend-but-everyone-got-the-story-wrong/2016/06/29/544916d8-3952-11e6-9ccd-d6005beac8b3_story.html
Nesbitt, S. J. (2016, Nov 6). Fallout from Penn State scandal continues to upend Mike McQueary's life. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/psu/2016/11/06/Fallout-from-Penn-State-scandal-upended-assistant-coach-s-life-sandusky/stories/201611040207
Perez, A. (2016, Jul 12). Joe Paterno knew of alleged sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky in 1976, court documents say. USA TODAY. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2016/07/12/joe-paterno-jerry-sandusky-penn-state-sexual-assault-complaint/86982048/
Rasenberger, J. (2006, Oct). Nightmare on Austin Street. American Heritage. Retrieved from http://www.americanheritage.com/content/nightmare-austin-street
Solomon, J. D. [Director]. (2016). The Witness [Motion Picture]. USA: FilmRise.
Zirin, D. (2012, Jan 12). Joe Paterno: The God Who Fell to Earth The death of Joe Paterno raises questions about whether one moral failing can erase a sixty-year legacy. The Nation. Retrieved from https://www.thenation.com/article/joe-paterno-god-who-fell-earth/