Moral and ethical reflections on the Penn State scandal

As the story of the sexual abuse of children and the cover-up at Penn State unfolds, many are reflecting on what the scandal means and what we should learn from it.

David Gibson looks at the parallels between Penn State and the Catholic Church scandals and he finds that the two are very much alike, until they are not:

Penn State coaching legend Joe Paterno is out in the university’s burgeoning sex abuse scandal, and comparisons to the Roman Catholic Church’s own abuse scandals are in.

“The parallels are too striking to ignore. A suspected predator who exploits his position to take advantage of his young charges. The trusting colleagues who don’t want to believe it—and so don’t,” author Jonathan Mahler wrote in The New York Times.

“This was the dynamic that pervaded the Catholic clerical culture during its sexual abuse scandals, and it seems to have been no less pervasive at Penn State.”

The analogy is popular. But does it hold up to scrutiny? Yes, and no. Here are three ways in which the twin abuse scandals are similar, and three ways they are different.

The biggest differences Gibson finds is that one institution has an accountability structure that did not function and the other institution thinks they are not accountable to anyone but God. The other difference between football and the Catholic Church is that one is a religion and the other just acts like it. You can decide which is which.

CNN says that the scandals in the Catholic Church shaped the response of the Penn State board of trustees but only after the story came out. In other ways the two institutions acted in the same way.

Many abuse victims applauded Penn State for firing top officials and criticized the Roman Catholic Church for not taking similarly dramatic action.

“What happened at Penn State tonight is a lesson to officials of the Catholic Church,” said Robert M. Hoatson, who leads a New Jersey group that assists abuse victims, in a statement after Wednesday night’s firings at Penn State. “The only just solution to the clergy abuse scandal of the Catholic Church is the wholesale removal of bishops.”

Church experts say Penn State’s decision to fire its president and its football coach reflect more of a top-down approach to personnel than in the Catholic Church, where issues are expected to be resolved locally, at the diocesan level.

“The American model of accountability drove the decision on Paterno, which is that ‘accountability’ means losing your job,” says John Allen, CNN’s chief Vatican analyst. “Whereas the Roman model tends to shape decisions on bishops, where ‘accountability’ means staying put and cleaning up your own mess.”

Still, some Vatican watchers say the church sex abuse crisis has helped shaped Penn State’s reaction to last weekend’s indictment.

“The Catholic Church's experience with this has raised public awareness, which probably helps to explain the swift reaction in this case,” says Francis X. Rocca, who covers the Vatican for the Religion News Service.

This was not the first time a sexual predator of children infiltrated sports. In 1973, it hit the Red Sox but only made news in the Boston area and in Winter Haven, Florida, where they used to have spring training.

Before Jerry Sandusky -- before he allegedly used the Penn State football complex to commit sex crimes with young boys and before the university spent more than a decade covering up his sins and before the grand-jury report revealed the appalling details of his abuse and before the campus rioted over legendary coach Joe Paterno losing his job amid it all -- there was Donald Fitzpatrick, the longtime Red Sox clubhouse manager who lured Ogletree and at least a dozen other young, African-American boys into two decades of systemic sexual abuse.

Not only has a serial child molester infiltrated sports before, he did so with one of baseball's most storied franchises. Should the allegations against Sandusky prove true, the two cases are strikingly similar. Both men seduced their victims with the lure of big-time athletics. Both bribed them with equipment and other swag. Both enjoyed watching boys shower. Both fondled their victims and engaged in oral sex. Both committed crimes in plain view and, despite getting caught, were swaddled by a power structure that buried the truth to protect those highest up in the organization. Both used threats and mind games to silence their prey for decades. And both ended up being exposed as predators far too late, after they had laid waste to innocent lives.

The bottom line is that many, many people failed along the way. It took a fifteen year old boy, who has been abused since he was 11, to have the courage to do what no other responsible adult did in this case: go to the police.

On the blog Whatever, John Scalzi says this:

At least one sports columnist has made the point that Joe Paterno, the 40+ year coach of Penn State, who was fired last night (along with the university’s president) by the university’s board of trustees, should be remembered for all the good things he has stood for, and for his generosity and principles, even as this scandal, which brought his downfall, is now inevitably part of his legacy as well. And, well. I suspect that in time, even this horrible event will fade, and Paterno’s legacy, to football and to Penn State, will rise above the tarnishment, especially because it can and will be argued that Paterno did all that was legally required of him, expressed regret and horror, and was not the man who was, after all, performing the acts.

Here’s what I think about that, right now. I’m a science fiction writer, and one of the great stories of science fiction is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which was written by Ursula K. LeGuin. The story posits a fantastic utopian city, where everything is beautiful, with one catch: In order for all this comfort and beauty to exist, one child must be kept in filth and misery. Every citizen of Omelas, when they come of age, is told about that one blameless child being put through hell. And they have a choice: Accept that is the price for their perfect lives in Omelas, or walk away from that paradise, into uncertainty and possibly chaos.

At Pennsylvania State University, a grown man found a blameless child being put through hell. Other grown men learned of it. Each of them had to make their choice, and decide, fundamentally, whether the continuation of their utopia — or at very least the illusion of their utopia — was worth the pain and suffering of that one child. Through their actions, and their inactions, we know the choice they made.


Comments (2)

I think my favorite reflection may have been by (surprise!) Jon Stewart, addressing the upset students of Penn State: "Don't worry, you'll get your football back. We know how much it means to you. After all, you're young, and we wouldn't want you to be scarred for life."

Bravo, and Thank You.

JC Fisher

I truly believe that when future historians are reviewing the great public moralists of the early 21st century (USA), Jon Stewart will be right at the top of the list.

Plus, you can never go wrong working in a "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" reference!

JC Fisher

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