‘If Penn State Was the Catholic Church’: Paterno, Sandusky, and Raping Boys

Certainly more people watch Penn State football than listen to Vatican pronouncements. But insular, all-male institutions that operate on principles of domination foster a culture of cognitive dissonance where paradoxical things are held to be true, e.g. “I am an upright and moral defensive coordinator for a winning team and I sexually molest boys” or “I am a good Catholic, successful coach, who works with good people and whatever’s going on in the showers is none of my business.”

Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator for Penn State is charged with multiple counts of deviant sexual acts with at least eight male minors — most under age 12. But around a long-term child sexual abuser is always a complicit community. As Mark Esposito writes in this case it was made up of “university administrators who did nothing despite horrific credible eyewitness accounts of explicit sexual acts in locker rooms and showers.” And we end up with “Disadvantaged kids taken advantage of by an authority figure who founded an organization ostensibly to help them, but apparently designed to fulfill his own aberrational desires.”

Child molesters don’t see themselves as sexual predators. They most often see themselves as regular folks who love kids and want to help them and whose affinity for children just happens to have a sexual element. Then, under stress, their need to satisfy that sexual urge compels them to take an action which they convince themselves isn’t such a big deal. They hardly ever believe that they are harming children – and often believe they are helping them.

Fixated child molesters exist – in small numbers, but they exist. However, the rest of us often participate in cultures and emotional habits that protect them and those practices can be dismantled. Those narratives that we create of “protecting the greater good” or “he’s such a nice guy” or “to make a great Penn State omelet a few eggs gotta get broken” must be dismantled.

Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times article Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment Meets an Inglorious End explores the willful blindness that we all must guard against.

… using the term “scandal” to describe what went on at Penn State, where a former defensive coordinator under Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, stands accused of molesting several boys over 15 years, seems to diminish it.

In the world of big-time college sports, the term has been cheapened by overuse. If these allegations prove to be true — Sandusky has maintained his innocence — they’ll be a far cry from football players’ trading memorabilia for discounts on their tattoos.

A better comparison would be the sexual molestation scandals that rocked another insular, all-male institution, the Roman Catholic Church.

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.

Even confronted with convincing proof, they choose to protect their institution’s reputation. In the face of a moral imperative to act, there is silence.

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.

Where does Paterno fit in?

If Penn State was the Catholic Church, Paterno was the Holy See of Happy Valley. Unlike two other top university officials implicated in the scandal, he has not been charged with a crime. But he is almost certainly guilty of cowardice and hypocrisy.

When a distraught graduate assistant told Paterno in 2002 that he had seen Sandusky with a boy in the locker-room showers, Paterno reported the incident to the athletic director but did nothing further, according to the grand jury statement. In other words, the great molder of young men discharged his legal obligation and moved on.

To be clear, this happened in 2002, when the Catholic Church sex scandals were front-page news just about every day. As a practicing Catholic himself, Paterno must have been following them; he was probably even pained by them.

Of course, Paterno did have other things on his mind. The Nittany Lions were coming off a dismal season and he was fighting off the first calls for his retirement.

With his effective silence, Paterno was protecting not only himself but also 50 years of mythology that had been building up around him since he arrived at Penn State as an assistant during the Truman administration.

2 thoughts on “‘If Penn State Was the Catholic Church’: Paterno, Sandusky, and Raping Boys”

  1. The Vatican will probably offer Paterno a job to be a lead investigator of complaints of child molestation against Catholic priests. He’s demonstrated the kind of skills sought by the Holy can’t See.

  2. Joe Paterno has had a great life. Most of these boys have had their lives wrecked. As far as I am concerned, there should be a criminal investigation as to what he knew and why he didn’t report it.

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