The recent Penn State debacle has given Pennsylvania a lot to think about.  I suggest these same lessons should cause the church to examine how we handle claims of abuse and molestation.

There is some question about how much administrators and Penn State’s beloved Joe Paterno knew about Sandusky’s activities and why they didn’t follow up on these allegations or take them more seriously.  

From the grand jury testimony, it’s clear that one graduate assistant (not named) who was an eye witness to Sandusky raping a ten year old boy in one of the locker room showers at Penn State told Joe Paterno about it.  Paterno raised it to his superiors in the administration (Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley) the next day, a Sunday.  But that’s where the trail runs cold.  Tim Curley & Senior Vice President Gary Schulz interviewed the graduate assistant approximately ten days later.  Both claim that they were unaware that the incident was sexual, and both have been indicted in a cover up, although Paterno was not charged.  However, 84 year old Paterno has subsequently been fired from Penn State due to his failure to take appropriate actions in this matter, allowing more children to be raped.

As someone who grew up in Pennsylvania, my Facebook news feed was immediately flooded with opposing opinions on the firing of Joe Pa.  Many defended him and decried the school for covering its own mistakes with a scape goat.  Others condemned the school and its football program for not protecting innocent children.  Personally, I was torn.  I’ve always considered myself a de facto Nittany Lions fan, but clearly the institution’s actions were outrageously blameworthy.  A few lessons noted about institutions and how they handle scandal in an article in the Grantland:

  • Institutions lie.  They do this for self-preservation.
  • Brand damage takes precedence over morality
  • Independent thought & action are discouraged.  It is considered risky for individuals to take action that might reflect poorly on the organization or bring a scandal to light.

I also wanted to understand why such a kindly man as Joe Paterno whose life is devoted to helping at risk children achieve their potential would so fundamentally fail to protect them.  Another story that came to light about Paterno’s attitudes toward sex crimes gave me additional insight into how this kind of personal failure can happen:

“In 2003, less than one year after Paterno was told that Sandusky was raping children, he allowed a player accused of rape to suit up and play in a bowl game. Widespread criticism of this move was ignored. In 2006, Penn State’s Orange Bowl opponent Florida State, sent home linebacker A.J. Nicholson, after accusations of sexual assault. Paterno’s response, in light of recent events, is jaw-dropping. He said, “There’s so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Geez. I hope—thank God they don’t knock on my door because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms.” Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of Pennsylvania’s National Organization for Women in Pennsylvania, was not amused. With chilling unintentional prescience, Tosti-Vasey responded, “Allegations of sexual assault should never be taken lightly. Making light of sexual assault sends the message that rape is something to be expected and accepted.””

Based on my overall reading of the Penn State case and the pattern of Paterno’s attitudes that have been revealed, I would add several more lessons that seem pertinent to considering how the church should ensure our children are protected:

  • Older generations may be out of touch with what constitutes sexual crime.
  • Loyalty and friendship can be persuasive, especially when pedophiles (who are expert con artists)  make compelling excuses.
  • Kind-hearted geezers often assume the best of people.
  • Organizations need to train and hold people accountable for reporting crimes to the police.
  • The fear of litigation (or losing a football game) must not take precedence over our moral obligation to protect the innocent.
  • Organizations that are too big to fail (like PSU football) need to beware of how big they’ve become.  They can’t get mired in bureaucracy or brand management.

The CHI instructs bishops to immediately contact the church’s legal department for further instruction.  Additionally, my dad has served in some bishoprics, and I have some friends who are current or former bishops.  Bishops are told to encourage the accuser to talk with their family and, if appropriate, to the police, but bishops do not report alleged crimes to the police.  The focus is on ensuring bishops understand how to keep the church from being legally culpable, but little information or training is provided to them on victim counseling or how to be emotionally supportive to the alleged victim.

It seems to me that with over 30,000 bishops out there, the church as an organization is clearly at risk for this kind of scandal:  too big to maintain total vigilance, insufficient effort to train leaders how to handle allegations sensitively, and too much focus on protecting ourselves from lawsuits (a very real concern in these cases, unfortunately).  I knew many women at BYU who were victims of parental incest or other types of sexual assault who did not receive adequate support when they asked for help.  Often the mother will side with her husband and assume that the child is acting out because it is easier than facing the truth.  In some cases, these victims felt bishops had failed them, either by referring them to read Miracle of Forgiveness (which implies it is better to die than submit without caveating that a child has limited ability to fight off a sexual advance), or by being persuaded by the parents that the child was “troubled” and not to be believed.  Many of these women were suicidally depressed or had bouts of promiscuity to deal with their conflicted feelings about sexuality and lack of control.

However, the church seems much less at risk for clergy abuse (“low risk” is not “no risk”) due to how we are organized and our focus on having no private one-on-one contact (with the exception of youth interviews).  There are preventive steps in place in our church that reduce the threat of scandal more than other churches and other youth programs.  Is it enough?

Is the church taking the right steps to assist victims without becoming complicit in enabling false allegations?  Are our preventing steps sufficient to protect children?  Do we focus too much on preventing legal liability at the risk of letting crimes go unreported?  Are there any better alternatives?  Do you think the church is at risk for scandal?  Discuss.