Nobody knows exactly who is guilty of what in the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. In 2002 a graduate assistant coach saw Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing a ten-year-old boy in the showers. Sandusky was, at the time, a former assistant coach who for a long time had been Joe Paterno’s right hand man, and who had been honored by the university with a permanent office and base of operations on campus. The graduate assistant (who was too flustered to interrupt what he saw) reported the incident to Paterno, who is still head football coach at Penn State at age 84, and who until today was probably the most powerful figure at the University. Paterno reported the matter to his superior, who was also in charge of the campus police.
Nothing, apparently, was done.
Now, as the result of a grand jury investigation originating elsewhere, it has come out that Sandusky has abused at least eight boys over the last fifteen years, youngsters he met though his charitable organization, The Second Mile, a group home and outreach program for troubled boys. Twelve more have emerged claiming to have been abused since the story broke.
Today Joe Paterno announced his resignation effective at the end of the current season, in what appears to be a preemptive strike against any move by the Board of Trustees to fire him earlier.
There are so many things that could be said about this. The first is to reaffirm that for an adult to engage children in sexual acts by any means is not only a crime but an extremely serious sin, surely a sin worthy of the proverbial millstone. Anyone who learns of such abuse in a community in which he has influence and authority has an intense moral obligation to act promptly to root out the abuse, punish the offender, and minimize the chance of similar abuse in the future.
Unfortunately, it seems to be a pattern in human behavior to divide the world into two groups, those who matter and those who don’t. On the broadest social scale, there have been times in American history when black people did not matter, or when women did not matter. In many places and situations, both could be abused with impunity. At the present time, the unborn do not matter. In the Church, at least at times, the damaging attitude of clericalism has contributed to a sense that lay people do not matter. This has at no time been more evident than in the period between, say, 1965 and 1985 or so, during which Modernist clerics throughout the Western world consistently abused the rights of the faithful to receive the Church’s doctrine and the Church’s liturgy. Note, however, that this does not mean sexual abuse has been limited to Modernists; it hasn’t.
But it is ironic that in precisely the period in which clericalism was most vehemently denounced, a large number of priests became perhaps the worst clericalists in history, comfortable in the assumption that, because they were priests, they would be covered for and protected by the bishops, who ultimately ran the clerical club, no matter which rights of the faithful were violated.
Now at Penn State, the football program is revered and enormously influential, primarily due to the success and reputation of Joe Paterno. But the temptation that goes with that sort of prestige and influence is the temptation that those outside the program do not matter, or at least do not matter as much as those inside the program. Sexual abuse is one of those things that happens, along with many other less repulsive forms of abuse, when certain classes of people do not matter. Such things are always decided on a comparative scale: This child does not matter as much as this priest, or this coach; or, perhaps more broadly, this child does not matter as much as the Church or the football program.
The Church herself, of course, has less excuse than most organizations, for she claims every soul as her own, every soul for Christ. It is theoretically inadmissible for any Catholic to hold the view that any person is outside the Church’s focus of concern, and therefore expendable. The same point can be made to anyone who understands the natural law, but most of us live in a narrow world in which it is very tempting to regard those who are “in” as more important than those who are “out.” It’s an endemic human failing. It affects kids in their cliques, women who gossip, ruthless men who welcome “collateral damage” in advancing their careers, rival socio-political groups (not to mention gangs), and of course politicians—whether they are hiding their abusive lives during a campaign or formulating ill-conceived reasons of state.
Here, put in highly personal terms, is a working definition of the self-absorption which tempts every human group, every organization and, indeed, every one of us: Those who are not like me always matter less. I may use those who are not like me. I may sacrifice those who are not like me. If necessary, I may even sacrifice the Son of God, who is most definitely not like me.
However, this major point does not exhaust the possibilities for comment. We might observe, in a burst of very legitimate defensiveness, that male same-sex child abuse is not confined to the Catholic Church; it is neither unique to priests nor demonstrably more frequent among them; and it has nothing to do with celibacy. Despite the unfortunate example of the Boy Scouts, as well as widespread abuse even within families, a great many people are nothing short of delusional on this point.
But to avoid the charge of special pleading, I’ll move on to another critical point. Should we not find it odd that Rick Pitino, the head men’s basketball coach for the University of Louisville, still holds his job? Pitino admitted in 2009 to having an affair and giving the woman money to use for an abortion. There was a scandal, but it blew over. Pitino is still there. After he admitted his wrong-doing, the President of the University said, “As we try to teach our students, when you make a mistake you admit it and right it as best you can. Coach has done that today.”
A year earlier, Rick Majerus, head men’s basketball coach at the Catholic St. Louis University, publicly expressed his support for abortion rights. Did he know of undergraduate women who have had abortions? Did his players come to him for help if they got someone pregnant? The Archbishop of St. Louis urged the University to take appropriate action. Majerus is still on the job. Speaking of clubs, universities are notoriously self-absorbed.
As a society, we are extremely selective about what we are willing to find horrifying. Apparently if we’re conditioned to find something horrifying, we do; and if we’re conditioned to find it acceptable, we do that, too. I confess that this makes it very difficult for me to take public outrage about anything seriously. But it is what it is, and public outrage can be useful when it helps break down the walls of the club. It has been good for the Church, and it will be good for Penn State athletics.
Joe Pa, meet Bernard Cardinal Law. Cardinal Law, Joe Pa.