Deja Vu for Catholic Penn Staters

Where the church and university sex-abuse scandals collide

It is the same story. The Penn State scandal is identical to what we’ve been learning about the Catholic Church over the past decade. Not in scope, of course, but in its fundamental nature. When an institution becomes larger—more important—than the ideals it is supposed to stand for, that’s when the institution is in dire trouble. Because those at the top, and those who work for them, will do everything they can to protect that institution, which fundamentally corrupts those ideals. That’s the story we’re seeing again, out at Penn State.

What has emerged so far is clear enough: Retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has been indicted of sexually molesting children who he had recruited into the Second Mile, his nonprofit for at-risk kids. Officials at Penn State, including head coach Joe Paterno, knew about the abuse. They did very little. Their concern was obviously not for the children, but for the football program and the school.

Paterno himself made this patently clear in his first statement after the scandal hit, when he defended his actions. Back in 2002, a graduate assistant had come to his home to tell him that he’d seen Sandusky in a shower at a football facility with a child. “It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw,” Paterno said in his statement, “but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the grand jury report.”

Wow. At the very least, Paterno learned that Jerry Sandusky was seen in a shower with a child doing something “inappropriate”—Paterno’s word. That’s a screaming message that the child was being molested—although Paterno took it another way. He passed on what he had learned to the school’s athletic director, and then did nothing more. He did nothing to learn what had happened to that child, or to any other children Sandusky may have molested, which allowed Sandusky to go right on doing as he pleased. And the university followed that lead.

This is where the Catholic Church scandal, and this one, merge. For many years, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua protected his church by moving sexually abusive priests around like pawns instead of turning them over to the police. I think that tells us everything we need to know about the Cardinal. But is it unfair to Joe Paterno to take this one incident, and question whether his public persona is a sham as well? And that what he represents, as the face of Penn State ideals, is in grave doubt?

Last night, hundreds of fans went to Paterno’s house in State College to support him, telling the coach how much they wanted him there, at the school, as their hero. “And I want you guys,” Paterno told them. “It’s hard for me to tell you how much this means to me. I’ve lived for this place. I’ve lived for people like you guys and girls … ”

And so he has. But what does that really mean?

What the sex abuse scandal says about the moral underpinnings of the Catholic Church, and the Church as a righteous house of worship, is an open question. And the same is true for Joe Paterno, and Penn State football, and the university itself. Because the Joe Paterno so many people believe in—the face of the rock-solid ideals the university is built on—might just be a myth.