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For those who missed the connection, there are basic similarities between the tragic events at Penn State and the pedophile obscenities in the Catholic Church – three, to be exact, besides, of course, the offenses themselves.
The first has to do with an unspoken policy that permeated both institutions – a policy embedded in all levels of both organizations: avoid scandal (bad press) at all costs. The iconic profile of Penn State football and the unsullied image so important to the Church were Achilles heels for both institutions. In Penn State’s case, the focus on football created a blind spot that had to end in disaster. The Church seemed not so blind as it was arrogant in projecting and protecting an image of itself somewhere between human and holy.
The second similarity is an egregious ignorance of the nature of pedophilia and how it works. To ignore the very first signs of its hold on any perpetrator, for whatever reason, is to put other children, even family members, at risk because the problem does not go away. For many reasons Penn State officials cut Mr. Sandusky a lot of slack while blithely creating a noose for themselves. The Church at the highest levels tried to protect itself by shifting problem priests from place to place, thinking the perpetrators would get the message and behave in other settings. In both instances, tragedy after tragedy followed.
The third similarity flows from the first two – an “old boy” kind of network protecting its own, believing that the whole should not be damaged by any of its parts while ignoring or denying damage in the parts themselves. Unfortunately, none of this could be known until proper authorities heard the whistle blowing … and blowing … and blowing. Only then did the networks collapse upon themselves. Not only was there wisdom in hindsight but guilt galore as well.
All this being said provides no balm for the victims. What happened to many of them did not have to happen at all had those in-the-know taken appropriate action when offenses cried out for it. The arrogance of power focused on protecting the institutions themselves while ignoring the children. In this, Joe Paterno, other Penn State officials and the hierarchy of the Church became strange bedfellows. Clearly not pedophiles themselves, Paterno and more than one Pope were complicit in their misplaced concerns for their institutions – and themselves – while being tragically insensitive to the victims.
The lesson in all of this? Power is not about those who possess it; it is about responsibility to those it affects.