The Common Good

Penn State’s Massive Moral Failure to Put The Most Vulnerable First Instead of Last

The Penn State story of the sexual abuse of children has just sickened me — as it has many others. I have been so upset and angry about these ugly and awful revelations that I’ve been unable to write about it until now.

Jesus comforts the children. Image via Wylio.
Jesus comforts the children. Image via Wylio.

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Maybe it’s because I have two young boys myself, 13 and 8, that my emotions are so strong. In fact, I am both a Dad and a coach.

A grand jury report, containing 40 counts of assault against boys as young as 7, by Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach at Penn State — number two to football coaching legend Joe Paterno — has stunned the nation.

By now most of us have heard about the alleged incident in 2002, when a graduate assistant coach walked into the Penn State University locker room and witnessed Sandusky, a big hulking man, raping a 10 year-old boy in the showers. The disgust and almost physical fury that wells up inside of me seriously challenges my non-violent principles, especially if I had been there.

But the young coach who witnessed the violent crime just fled and called his father, who told him to call Paterno, who then informed the university athletic director and a vice-president.

The only consequence was that Sandusky suffered was having to give up his keys to the locker room. Apparently no other actions were taken or follow-up pursued.

It’s literally unbelievable.

So why does this happen, and keep happening? A lot of reflection is going on about that now.

One answer is the pie chart that I saw, showing the total annual revenue of Penn State at $116.2 million with the football profits comprising 72.7 of that — the lion’s share.

Big sports at big colleges are big business for both the schools and the surrounding communities. The control and protection of money in so many of our institutions is a leading cause of institutional moral failure — and this was a colossal moral failure. 

Paterno has become a virtual icon for his almost five decades of coaching and for running, as college football programs go, one of the cleanest in the country — boasting many athlete graduations and virtually no accusations of rules violations. There is already a statue of Paterno on the campus and, before being fired last week, he had showed no signs of retiring at the age of 84. So perhaps the protection of an icon was also involved.

Such massive abuse, going on for so long, and known to so many as it now appears — from janitors to coaches to university officials to Paterno, the veritable king of the University — could not have continued with a collective, disciplined, and very evil cultural complicity.

The similarities of both the repeated abuse and the institutional cover-up are painfully reminiscent of the Catholic Church’s pedophile scandal. Priests and coaches, violating the most vulnerable and that abuse being covered up by their institution’s leaders creates a sense of utter betrayal and loss of trust.

And here is the most evil thing for me: In most cases, the children who are violated  already are among the most vulnerable. Sandusky ran a non-profit organization called “Second Mile” which dealt with the most “at risk kids.”

That’s an amazing phrase, really, ”at risk kids.” Under the guise of helping them, Sandusky exploited an opportunity to abuse a yet unknown number of children.

Many priests too sought out the children of single mothers, and with the offer of help to the families, then created opportunities to violate their children, bodies and souls. Many of these children don’t know much about healthy relationships and some have been abused before by other people in their often broken family systems.

Far too often they often don’t have natural protectors, such as fathers with good relationships to their children and the capacity to defend them, who naturally cast a watchful eye at anyone who might be a predator.

Of course, most of these exploited and abused kids come from poor families that lack the capacity to surround their children with such protection. So the predators prey on those who already are the most vulnerable; and then the institutions involved have more interest in protecting the predators and themselves, than innocent children.

The pattern is as predictable as it is evil, and now we see it at a major and respected university and its “exemplary” football program.

That is why Jesus' command to protect the most vulnerable, “the least of these,” is so radical and humanizing. In Mathew 25, he allows no excuses, neither personal nor institutional.

“As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me,” Jesus says without qualification. Apply that text to this terrible exploitation at Penn State and it certainly speaks explicitly to the most vulnerable children who have been so horribly abused there.

As it was done to them, it was done to Christ himself, the very Son of God. This famous text is one of the few passages of judgment in the New Testament.

It makes protection of the most vulnerable the highest value and stands as radically countercultural to institutions that would make it the lowest — protecting all others first. Jesus command would force us to reverse all that and to literally put the most vulnerable first.

Judgment is now needed at Penn State and beyond about how we continue to allow wealth, power, institutional protections, and cultural complicity to aid, abet, and enable the evil abuse of our most vulnerable children.

Could the high visibility of the Penn State case and the notoriety of its famous football program and coach now be used to finally face — and eradicate — the horrendous cultural sin that just repeats itself over and over again?

Is it finally time to come to terms with this most egregious abuse of power?

Only such sacred intervention will bring about any relief, any redress, any justice, and any redemption for those who have suffered the most.

And if we don’t that, we all will be judged by the God who said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me."

Lord have mercy.

 

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