Lessons Learned on Sexual Misconduct from Penn State

In a previous blog, Taking a Page from the Old Coach’s Book, I mentioned a couple of postings from a sportscaster regarding the ongoing turmoil at Penn State involving a coach accused of sexual misconduct with some young boys.  I felt the Church can learn some lessons from that case on the risks of child sexual abuse and also a need to openly, transparently, immediately and without fail to deal with these types of allegations.  Whereas some may have anesthetized  themselves by believing that these type of problems only happen in the Roman Catholic Church, the allegations at Penn State show that they can happen anywhere and that any institution can fail to deal properly with the allegations.   Institutions can be more interested in defending the interests of the institution than in dealing with the personal crimes of rogue employees.  Institutions might assume that if they can avoid public entanglement with scandal that is better than having to deal with the crimes individual employees might commit.  That strategy in recent times has often backfired to the tenfold detriment of institutions.

I will note again that for me the issue of greatest concern is not that the allegations happened at a college or were allegedly done by a football coach.  My interest is the implication for the Church, and also parallels the Penn State situation might have with cases that have happened in other churches and could happen in the Orthodox Church.

I also mention again, I am not a great sport fan, so it is not that this issues involves a sports program that interests me.   Like in my previous blog, I had never even heard of the commentator I am going to quote below.  The significance to me is that some sportscasters are getting exactly right what a number of church leaders miss completely in dealing with sexual misconduct.

I accidentally heard Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN interviewed on the radio on Saturday afternoon and he made some very strong comments about Joe Paterno’s actions beginning with when Coach Paterno first learned of the allegations.   A lot of what he said is also in an article he wrote for ESPN (The Tragedy of Joe Paterno)  which I quote extensively below.    I quote it because in it are important lessons and reminders for Church leadership in dealing with clergy or any church sexual misconduct.

The first words I heard when I turned my car radio on (and what kept me listening) was Wojciechowski taking Paterno to task for trying to control the terms of how he (Paterno) would be dealt with by the university – Joe offered to retire at the season’s end and told the Board of Trustees not to worry about him or waste even a minute talking about him.  The Board to their credit decided Joe doesn’t get to dictate the terms of how he is handled.    Gene W. was adamant that Joe PA was in the wrong from how he handled the case on the day he learned about it, and so now he doesn’t deserve the right to dictate how he should be dealt with.  The Board of Trustees of  Penn State knew what had to be done and they did it swiftly and unapologetically.  Below is what is for me the relevant portion of Gene W’s article:

Paterno had equity at Penn State, the kind of equity that gave him the power to essentially stiff-arm the school’s efforts to coax him into retirement in 2004. He tried the same audacious tactic earlier this week when he announced his decision to retire at season’s end and added, almost as a warning it seemed, that the PSU board of trustees had more pressing matters to deal with than his job status.

It was the final, tone-deaf act of a man who failed to realize his own power base had eroded. Wednesday night the trustees informed him by phone of their decision to fire him, effective immediately.

A statement released that night from Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany included a six-word sentence that was perfect in its simplicity. The entire situation is so sad.

Profoundly sad because of the victims affected by the alleged acts of Sandusky.

Sad because a great university has been kneecapped by its very own.

Sad because there are so many questions involving Paterno’s role in the chain of events that led to his forced departure.

For example:

Why didn’t Paterno contact the police when first informed in 2002 by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary of an alleged locker room incident involving Sandusky and a young boy?

Why did Paterno heir apparent Sandusky unexpectedly resign from Penn State in 1999?

Why was Sandusky granted special access to the Penn State athletic facilities even after the 2002 incident?

Why did all of this remain secret for so long?

“Joe doesn’t know why [Sandusky] resigned?” says a former athletic director at a rival institution. “Bull—-. That was the first cover-up. … In ’99, when Sandusky resigns, you think this coaching staff didn’t know what was going on?

“In 2002, this could have been a two-day story: ‘Ex-Penn State assistant coach is arrested.’ I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been a painful story, but it would have been dealt with. But there’s so much arrogance to think they can keep it a secret. And it starts with Joe … Monumental ego and arrogance.”

These are the kind of opinions and statements you had better get used to. That Paterno had better get used to.

As a promised comprehensive and exhaustive Penn State in-house investigation begins, as the Sandusky trial hearings approach, as the expected civil lawsuits are filed, there are likely to be revelations that test the faith of even Paterno’s most vocal supporters. This is what happens when more than a decade’s worth of dirt is swept under a blue and white Penn State rug.

A list of other blogs I’ve posted on church sexual misconduct with links to them can be found at Blogs on Church Sexual Misconduct.

Taking a Page from the Old Coach’s Book

The allegations of child sex abuse occurring at Penn State involving a football coach has caused literally a riot among fans, friends and the public.  Though a lot of the energy which has been reported has focused on what some see as the head coach being treated unfairly, what everyone in the Church should note is the direction in which U.S. law and the courts are headed when it comes to child sex abuse.  Zero tolerance means just that.

I’m not particularly interested in Penn State, I take note of the events because I serve on the OCA’s Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee.  I point to what happened at Penn State as yet another wake up call to bishops, priests and parish members.  Sexual predators are real, they aren’t limited to a minority of Catholic priests.  They exist in every walk of life, and our Church is no less susceptible to their predations than any other organization in which children are present.

I advise you to read two articles from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED about the events.  I’m referring to these articles from a sports magazine as I’ll assume the magazine is not involved in current politics but is viewing the events from the point of view of sports writers.  Both articles are written by Andy Staples (I know nothing about him, I admit I don’t normally read SI and am a luke warm sports fan at best).  The first article is titled, “With no explanation for inaction, Joe Paterno must go.”  The second article is “Paterno’s Penn St. legacy forever marred by Sandusky scandal.”

I want to repeat and emphasize I have no real interest in this being related to sports, football, Penn St., or Joe Paterno.   I have nothing against any of these institutions.  My interest is purely what implications any of this has for the Orthodox Church.   Already the press, including my home town newspaper are making the connection:  Institutions in Sex Scandals try to Protect their Own.

Coach Paterno is not accused of sexual abuse.  The story is that someone reported to him witnessing a sex act between a coach and a 10 year old boy in the college football complex.  He reported it to Paterno, Paterno apparently following policy reported the event to a campus atheletic director.  But then nothing happened, no follow up, no outcry, no report to the police.  Life went on as if nothing happened.   As it turns out there were other victims of sex abuse from the same accused coach.  I think I heard he is indicted on 40 counts.  (You can read the indictment on line.)  Some of those might have been prevented had Paterno and others taken the allegations seriously and followed through in an investigation.  No one did.

All Orthodox in America need to pay attention to these events.  Child abuse is not merely unfortunate, nor is it merely a deadly sin [the type of which Jesus Himself suggested the perpetrator of such a horrible sin should have a millstone put around his neck and be drowned in the sea (Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2)],  it is also a crime.  That is the part of child abuse that is now coming to roost in every church.  It will not be enough for us to feel sorry that sin happens.  The state in the case of child sexual abuse is saying we must actively and proactively work to prevent it from happening.  If we fail to do so, we will make the headlines of every news agency in the country.  But that isn’t the worst part.  The worst part is we will have failed to protect a child.  However terrible the behavior of the predators and sex abuse, it is those who suffer abuse whose suffering we should be concerned about.

Bishops, priest and parishioners of the Orthodox Church must not stay silent or on the sidelines on this issue.   We must all actively work to prevent child abuse in our parishes.  Wherever there are children, predators are interested in being there too.  Fortunately, predators are a very small portion of the total population.  But we must work proactively against them.   We each and all should be demanding our parishes, parish councils, priests, bishops and dioceses to take every step possible to help prevent even one child from being abused in our churches.  (See also my blog Lessons Learned on Sexual Misconduct from Penn State).

We also should take note that we cannot hide behind having good policy.  Joe Paterno appears to have followed policy.  He reported the event to an atheletic supervisor, just not to the police.   Bishops and priests especially should take note of this.  If we try to “protect” ourselves by merely following policy, rather than by following up with real investigation of reported sexual abuse, we will find ourselves both in the scandalous position of Coach Paterno, and with the searing knowledge that we failed to protect our children.

Maybe the publicity of the Penn St. case will awaken more of us to the problem.  Too many have thought this a problem of the Catholic Church, or that it could only occur somewhere else.   We see now the problem is in society and the world of the fall.  This is the world in which we too abide.

See also my blog series which began with State Wants to Hold Bishop Accountable for Priest’s Misdeeds