Paterno and the Bishops

I generally try to avoid topics that are already over-covered in the media, but I do want to say a couple things about the Penn State scandal.

First, if you’re not a college football fan, it’s hard to appreciate what a shock this all has been, and why it’s drawing so many comparisons to the Catholic clergy’s pedophilia scandal. Maybe the person in the best position to comment is sexual-abuse-prevention activist and College Football Hall of Fame quarterback Don MacPherson:

The program under Joe Paterno is considered one of the cleanest in college football, boasting high graduation rates and on-field performance. … Penn State stood above in the hypercompetitive and often unscrupulous world of college sports, and this served as a recruiting tool and an assurance to parents of promising high school football players. It’s also not hard to understand why parents of troubled young men would want their sons to have the influence of the environment that Penn State and [Paterno assistant coach and accused child rapist Jerry] Sandusky provided.

Many other college coaches … well, let’s not slander them by name, but I would just roll my eyes if I heard a similar story about them. Their whole careers display an it-doesn’t-matter-if-you-don’t-get-caught approach to life. If exposing some crime would threaten the image of their programs, of course they’d look the other way. But Joe Paterno? That’s disturbing on a deeper level.

Second, the comparison between the Catholic Church and the Penn State football program points up something else: American society has changed since the Catholic Church scandal broke. There was a certain amount of wagon-circling around Paterno and his program, but not really that much by comparison to the pedophile-priest scandal. (The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue is still circling the wagons.)

Instead, a lot of people who clearly wanted to defend Paterno largely skipped past denial and went straight to how-could-this-have-happened shock and grief.

This ESPN clip comes from the day after the scandal broke. ESPN analyst and former Paterno linebacker Matt Millen (while he wants to give Paterno a chance to defend himself) is already wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of it — at one point going silent because he will start crying otherwise.

Millen’s reaction goes straight to the heart of why this story is upsetting: It overturns our comfortable notion that good people only do good things and bad people only do bad things. It’s obvious that for all these years, Paterno has been a moral voice in Millen’s head, calling him to live by a higher standard. And Jerry Sandusky … I’ll let Millen tell it:

Jerry Sandusky is your next door neighbor. He’s the guy you’ve known your whole life. He’s a helpful guy. He’s a light-hearted guy. He’s a smart guy. He’s a willing-to-help person. He’s everything you want. That’s the thing that just … could you see it coming? I mean … I’ve sat here. I’ve known the guy since 1976. I’ve been in meetings with him. He’s been in my home.

But all that doesn’t lead Millen to say “It can’t be true!” Instead he asks himself: “Could you see it coming?”

This mystery is part of what McPherson is confronting in his article The Myth of the Monster Pedophile: Sandusky wasn’t a child rapist pretending to be a nice guy, and he wasn’t a nice guy suddenly possessed by a child-raping demon. He was genuinely a nice guy in some settings and genuinely a child rapist in others. That’s what’s so disturbing.

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  • Mark Norton  On November 21, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    > He was genuinely a nice guy in some settings and genuinely a child rapist in others. That’s what’s so disturbing.

    I agree that it is disturbing, but it’s interesting to wonder why that is so. People often act differently in different circumstances. People have different competencies – expert in one area, inept in another. So why is it so hard to understand how a person could be good in one situation and very bad in another?

    Perhaps part of the answer lies in sex. American society, in particular, shoves sex into the closet. The more your sexual preferences deviate from the norm, the deeper into the closet it gets shoved. Gay people have been dealing with this issue for a long time and only in the past 20 years or so have they made serious progress towards bringing that lifestyle out into light.

    The shock comes because we are forced to hide our desires such that when they come into the open, the emotional upset is all the greater. We all have our dark side. The difference between good and evil is how we decide to act on those dark desires. Being a good guy in most aspects of life doesn’t excuse the damage a rapist does to a young man or boy. It is buy our actions that we should be judged.

  • David Lance  On November 21, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    I remember fishing under a bridge with a couple of friends at about 9 or 10 years old, and a 30ish-year-old couple joined us. They were new. I did not recognize them. They were not from the neighborhood. They were married. I found myself alone with the woman, and we were talking about me using a bobber, and her not. And she told me that she liked to feel the line twitch between her fingers, and looked at me with a leer that raised all the hair on the back of my neck and sent me scampering up the bank and the hell away from her. My instincts kicked in. I wonder how often, growing up, I was in that grey area. That danger zone. Probably more times than I was aware. Thankfully I was never sexually molested or abused. I knew two boys in my junior high who were. Both adopted gay lifestyles in adulthood. One was raped in a tent at a Boy Scout gathering. The other was seduced and raped in the basement darkroom of an adult neighbor. It happens. Way more often then we care to admit. I look at my own child and can scarcely imagine that such real danger lurks around her. There is no easy solution. It calls for all to be eternally vigilant, taking every hint of trouble seriously, while remembering that adults being human around children is normal and necessary and healthy. We must evolve as humans to the point that we diligently and responsibly and sanely police ourselves and make rational and accurate assessments. We must be mindful of ourselves. Of our own shortsightedness. Of our own projections. Of our judgement or lack of it. We must be the adults in not some situations, but in all of them. That is the deal. The Gerry Sandusky’s are among us. They are not going away anytime soon. We must be the adults who unequivocally step in when we stumble upon the coach in the midst of a child rape. We must be responsible. Those Gerry Sandusky’s can not (must not) be allowed a single millimeter of wiggle room. It is up to all adults to detect the Gerry Sandusky’s at the first infraction, and to bring curbs to the behavior that are ironclad and fierce. We the adults have no excuse to allow such a man to serially rape dozens of children over a decades-long reign. That is the deal. Football and Catholicism be damned.

    • weeklysift  On November 21, 2011 at 1:50 pm

      I have a lot of ambivalence about vigilance. I like kids but don’t have any of my own, so I really appreciate that my friends have trusted me to hang around with their kids without a lot of supervision. Some of those kids are in their 20s now, and I value having a friendship with them that doesn’t depend on their parents.

      So whenever I look at suggested “rules for keeping your children safe”, I always wonder how much distance those rules would have put between me and kids that I think have benefited from knowing me.

      • David Lance  On November 21, 2011 at 2:57 pm

        That is exactly what I meant when I wrote “adults being human around children is normal and necessary and healthy.” I don’t advocate a set of rules. That is for people who want to alienate the joy right out of life. Life comes with pitfalls. As adults, it is our job to insulate the children from them. It would be foolish to inhibit all adult/child relationships because rapists exist. However I make no concessions on my call for vigilance. When a child says something is wrong, listen. When you suspect there is something amiss, look at it. No one wants to believe that the friendly, impish character Mr. Sandusky is actually a monster. Get over that resistance. Surmount that ambivalence. Look closely at what is in front of you. Make a clear-headed judgement call based on mature wisdom. This time. Next time. Every time. There is no other way. You are the adult. The children depend on it. So, do it.

      • weeklysift  On November 21, 2011 at 3:36 pm

        I agree, David. If one of my friends’ kids had ever expressed discomfort about something in our relationship, to my friends or somebody else, I would understand completely if the parents had set down some ground rules or limited our contact — even if (from my point of view) the discomfort seemed unwarranted.

      • David Lance  On November 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm

        I do not agree. This is kind of an extreme topic. Either there is abuse going on, or there is not. No gray area. We are talking about abuse. If that is the case, then someone needs to go to jail. Red flags need to be flying all over the field. The end of something has to be firmly established. No more abuse for that guy. No more waiting ten years, and then looking back at the additional fifteen victims that suffered because the abuse wasn’t stopped when it was discovered. If there is not abuse, then clarification and redirection is required. And somebody has to say “I’m sorry for the false accusations.” Absolutely no one deserves to be falsely accused, much less falsely persecuted. That is just another form of abuse.

      • David Lance  On November 21, 2011 at 10:07 pm

        I find it saddening that the leaders of the Christian church on earth could so easily be expected to defend child rapists in their management structure, but when a football coach like Joe Paterno does it, people are really shocked. Suffer the little children indeed. I also identify, and quite clearly, three distinct levels of vile here. First is the act of raping a child. Next is the inact of an adult who – for one reason or another – complies with the rapist and does not stop it. And finally, there is the scenario where an innocent man is suspected, or anticipated to commit such a crime, and is – based upon that hunch – publicly persecuted as if he actually did it. I am not sure which of those three things is the worse.


  • By Refraining From Violence « The Weekly Sift on November 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    […] Paterno and the Bishops. Comparing the Penn State scandal to the Catholic Church scandal, it’s clear that the public attitude towards sexual abuse has changed. […]

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