Derek Johnson Muses

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Joe Paterno’s fall, part 1: General thoughts, and Implications for the Church

I listen to ESPN radio on a daily basis, and since the Brett Farve-come-back-from-retirement story in 2008, there hasn’t been a story that gripped me to the radio then the Joe Paterno-Penn State sex abuse scandal. Interestingly enough, both situations featured the rending of an small town’s athletic program’s icon, although the situation at Penn State involves a far greater charge of sexual abuse against children. This tragic story has a couple of different angles, and it’s probably going to take me more than one blog post. So in this first post, I’m going to lay out my initial thoughts and turn my attention to how some conservative religions writers have touched on this issue, and how they could go deeper.

First of all, what happened behind the curtain at Penn State where retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was abusing young boys is a tragedy, and the only thing that is a greater tragedy is that Joe Paterno allowed it to go on. It is repeated that Paterno did met his legal obligation to tell his superiors about the incident, but really, Joe Paterno has no superior at Penn State. He should be the one facing perjury and obstruction of justice charges; the athletic director and university president happen to be the fall guys for Paterno. Paterno, in a sense, could have been blinded by generational biases, as domestic and child abuse were thought by his fathers to be matters that should be handled in the family. While that doesn’t excuse Paterno in any way for reporting the abuse or not confronting Sandusky, it does explain why he let the abuse go on for so long and allowed it to go unnoticed.

All this points to the fact that the gutless, Paterno-worshiping sports media won’t say: Paterno should have retired years ago. In an age where the responsibilities of a coach had grown enormously and coaches literally work themselves to death, a program can’t have an eighty year-old coach who doesn’t fully understand the seriousness of sexual abuse allegations. Granted, many of the abuse allegations happened before the 2004 incident where Paterno kicked the university president and athletic director out of his home when they even suggested he retire (at age 78). But if Paterno had retired in 1992 when he was 66, he would have coached for twenty-six seasons, more than a full coaching career. This was the danger of giving one man too much power was that, ultimately, he would abuse it, and it would hurt the university in the long run.

The national media is remarkably soft when it comes to Paterno. I remember an episode of Around the Horn from early 2007, when the topic of Joe Paterno coaching in the press box came up. The host Tony Reali, a young man of about thirty, set up the question for all of the reporters to come out and say that Joe Paterno should just retire if he was going to coach from the press box, but each one of the older columnists said that Paterno coaching in the press box was a great idea, and could even help Penn State. At the end of the debate, Reali was struck by the almost unanimous praise for Paterno’s flaying attempt to be Penn State’s coach.

Throughout the coverage of Paterno’s firing, members of the media struggled to separate their own emotions from Paterno. Whether it be longtime newspaper columnists or former Paterno players turned analysts such as Matt Millen and Todd Blackledge, the media seemed lost in the memories of the Paterno they knew and loved. Joe Pa was the last great coach of generation, and for him to be forced into is unfortunate, even if it had to happen. Truly, Paterno did a lot of good for college football, the university he served, and the players he coached, and all that will be remembered. But the stain of Paterno’s blind eye on Sandusky’s crimes will stick to resume forever.

The religious and conservative media were drawn to this story for obvious reasons. Paterno’s attitude for keeping the scandal in house unfortunately mirrors that of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal very closely. The large consensus I’ve noted among the aforementioned media, is first, is that it seems to be a chorus calling for immediate reports of any knowledge of sexual abuse. While that is a very important point in the consideration of this case, there is another strain of the Paterno story that churches should talk about because, as in the case of sex abuse scandal that hit close to me, it could be as common in such a cover-up in a church or in a small town.

I grew up in a large Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod parish that had a school, which, while I did not attend it, grew to a prominent feat of 400 students in a community of 6,000 people. It was a very well-respected school in our town, and our church body as a whole. The two senior teachers, the principal and the head art teacher, together with the parish music director, were jokingly referred to as the “holy trinity” around our congregations. While pastors came and went over the years, these people stayed in their positions. Nothing in the congregation and school happened without their say-so.

Then one year, about a month after the art teacher had retired, a former student came forward with a sexual abuse charges against both the school principal and the art teacher. Before a meeting to determine what would be done with the principal, he committed suicide. Other victims came forward, and then congregation was torn apart. Ten years later, the school’s enrollment is half of what it was before the scandal.

The one similarity between this scandal and the Penn State scandal was that in both instances, there were individuals who had too much power. In the case of Penn State, it was the enabler who had the power; in the case of the parish school, it was the abusers themselves.

The reason Paterno was able to cover up Sandusky’s abuse, was quite simply, he was able to. He won big at a major college football program, and accumulated the praise and adoration of the university’s community for it. But unlike his contemporary, Tom Osborne, who chose to retire at sixty and put his institution first, Paterno used his power to cling to his position long after he’d reached retirement age, and the reverence of Paterno left the university exposed to the scandal that befell it. The scandal stayed in the closet because that was where Paterno wanted it to stay, and no one dared to challenge him.

Like Penn State University, many churches themselves are small organizations, and for those in rural communities, the pastor of a church or priest of a parish is often the most educated individual in the community, and thus the most respected. The rural areas of the country are desperate for educated people as all the talented young people leave for jobs in the city, and the urban church is desperate for the educated, able pastor to lead reforms for the poor and underprivileged children and families. While the vast majority of such religious leaders are indeed people who are above reproach, that doesn’t mean that they should ever be exempt from any scrutiny; in fact, Moses tells the Israelites in Deuteronomy 13 that they should test the prophets who come. Paul even exhorts his student Timothy to be judicious in his selection of teachers and warns him of false prophets.

And also like a university community, churches are often very insular institutions. Now, there are many positives to this. In the case of the school, it can provide a place for children to grow up it. Churches can be places of study, drawing closer to God, and healing for life’s hardships. But just as easily as a church can be a safe place, the walls can be used to hide abuse and allegations, under the guise of protecting the institution. While the institution may be protected in the short term, it is only being built up for long-term damage, not to mention scarring the lives of children. And when the church is found to cover sexual abuse up, the ratifications are much greater than in any other organization, as well they should be. If you teach abstinence in a culture of sexual freedom, you will get scored if such abuse is brought to light.

In light of these things, churches need to emphasize things like the doctrine of the ministry. I don’t know much about other church bodies, but in my church, it is taught that Christ gave a specific ministry office to his apostles, an office that is greater than the apostles themselves. (Matthew 16:18-19; 28:18-20). This teaching has been used to comfort many people who received the sacrament from priests or pastors who were themselves living in sin or went on to quit the ministry. While obviously this teaching doesn’t excuse the behavior of a pedophile, it can comfort a congregation who needs to deal with such a person because getting rid of pastor X doesn’t destroy the office the church has had for 2,000 years and will continue to have long after any pastor they know is gone.

So there are my thoughts on Joe Paterno, and what the church should learn from his scandal. I have many more thoughts on Paterno, what the scandal says about small colleges and rural America, the media’s coverage of his dismal, and the riots afterward, but I will save it for another post.

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