“I could have done more.” Those haunting words of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno reveal the heart of one of the most horrific scandals in college football history. Like you, I am literally sickened by this tragedy, which unfolded before our very eyes last week and will continue to unravel in the weeks and months to come.
Child sexual abuse is always ugly. Taking advantage of a child in order to satisfy one’s sexual desires or exercise power can never be justified, rationalized, explained away, fixed, or completely healed. It is among the most heinous of crimes. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, sexual abuse goes unreported because of the fear of retaliation, shame, a desire to protect the abuser or institution, or the hope that everything will just go away, which it never does.
The players in this story are many, and the failures happened at multiple levels. Jerry Sandusky, the alleged perpetrator, had been a 30 year assistant coach at Penn State, at one time the heir apparent to Joe Paterno. 84 year old Paterno was the football coach at Penn State for 46 years and has more wins than anyone in major college football history (409). “Papa Joe” has been the most powerful person in Pennsylvania sports for decades.
Sandusky retired in 1999 to focus on The Second Mile, a program he started for at risk boys. His generous retirement package included an office in the Penn State football complex and use of the facilities. According to the grand jury report, then graduate assistant Mike McCreary witnessed Sandusky sexually abusing a 10 year boy in the shower at the Penn State football complex in 2002. McCreary told Paterno about the abuse but did not go to the police. Paterno then told athletic director Tim Curley and Penn State vice-president Gary Schultz but did not go to the police. Curley and Schultz informed Penn State President Graham Spanier but did not go to the police. President Spanier also did not go the police. For 9 years Jerry Sandusky was not stopped.
On Nov. 4 a grand jury indicted Sandusky on 40 counts of molesting 8 boys from the mid 1990’s to the late 2000’s, including a charge of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse for the 2002 incident. The report, which is public and extremely graphic, said that Sandusky had access to hundreds of vulnerable boys over many years. Even though the grand jury decided that Paterno had “fulfilled his legal requirements when advised of the incident,” state police commissioner Frank Noonan said, “Somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child.” As of today, Sandusky is in jail, Curley and Schultz were fired a week ago, assistant coach McCreary is on administrative leave, and last Wednesday night, the Penn State Board of Trustees fired Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier.
Whenever a story evokes such an amazing amount of publicity and emotion, people of faith need to pay attention. What do we do with this gut-wrenching tragedy? First, we pray. We pray for healing for the children, now young men whose lives are forever scarred because they were forced to submit to sexual acts by an adult they trusted. We pray that the victims and their families will receive appropriate counseling and support. We pray for Joe Paterno and university officials, good people who made poor decisions with enormous ramifications. We pray for Jerry Sandusky, that his life would be transformed and he would gain strength to face the consequences of his actions. And we pray for all victims of sexual abuse, many of whom are prompted once more to relive the nightmare.
Second, we look to the scriptures to ground us in God’s intentions for the treatment of children. Every child is precious to God and must be nurtured and protected with the utmost care and love. On more than one occasion Jesus chastised adults for disregarding and dismissing children and treating them as less than human.
- “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:5-6
- “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Matthew 19:14
Third, we need to learn as much as we can about child sexual abuse, become advocates for any children who are harmed, and ensure that children are protected in our homes and churches. Many of us either know someone who was sexually abused as a child or were abused ourselves. If you were abused yourself, what courage and support do you need to name the truth? If you were one in whom someone else confided, did you report the abuse, ignore it, or dismiss it as no big deal? If you are a parent, are you teaching your children how to treat others with respect and also never to let other people touch them inappropriately? It’s never too late to do the right thing.
The United Methodist Church is very aware of the devastating effects of abuse in our churches. Does your church have a child protection/risk management policy to ensure that children are safe in your care? Do you enforce it without exception? Are you diligent in performing background checks on every single person who works with children and youth? In March of 2012, all clergy in the West Michigan Conference will be required to attend a workshop on sexual ethics. It is part of our commitment to educate clergy on the extreme seriousness of sexual misconduct and the dynamics of power, offer tools for clergy to care for their own health, and provide a safe environment for children and youth in our churches. Michigan law mandates that clergy report suspected sexual abuse to the Department of Human Services.
Fourth, we need to take a hard look at the “human condition,” as Disciple Bible Study puts it so well. Part of the human condition that contributed to this tragedy is our nation’s obsession with college and professional sports, which encourages a culture where sexual abuse and cover-ups can happen. By our unrealistic adulation of athletes and coaches, we open wide the door for inappropriate behavior. For decades Joe Paterno was more powerful than anyone else at the university and could call the shots. Last Wednesday Paterno, in a preemptive move to stay in control, announced his retirement at the end of the season. He also advised that the school’s Board of Trustees, which had already been considering his fate, should “not spend a single minute discussing my status” because they had more important matters to address.
To their credit the Trustees ignored Joe Pa’s advice, took authority, and fired Paterno that night. Board vice-chair John Surma said clearly, “The University is much larger than its athletic team.” The reaction of some 2,000 students who gathered on campus Wednesday night to protest Paterno’s firing simply reflects the disconnect between the real world and the artificial world of sports where athletes and coaches have little or no accountability. I think it is safe to say that none of the abused young men were in the crowd that night.
There are no winners here. Maybe I’m in left field or in the end zone, but I am less than amused at how college football takes over our country every fall, not just in Pennsylvania but in Michigan as well. You may say it’s harmless. However, I can’t help but think that our own misplaced priorities contribute to the arrest of athletes for various crimes, the acceptance of illegal money, and the blowing off of academics. As one big name school after another is cited for NCAA violations and embroiled in scandals, our children continue to be traumatized, neglected, and abused and suffer right under our nose.
Finally, we would do well to meditate on Joe Paterno’s words, “I could have done more.” Paterno fulfilled his legal obligation to report the alleged abuse to his superior, but he did not fulfill his moral obligation to do all he could to stop the abuse. If we are honest, we know that we, too, have not always done all we could and have made equally poor judgments. Fortunately, our mistakes have not been played out in the national arena.
Do you remember the powerful 1993 movie Schindler’s List? It’s the true story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi who singlehandedly saved 1,100 Jews from the gas chambers in World War 2. Despite his heroics, Schindler was haunted by all the people he could not save, and at the end of the movie he breaks down in front of his Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern.
Schindler: I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.
Stern: Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.
Schindler: If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just…
Stern: There will be generations because of what you did.
Schindler: I didn’t do enough!
Stern: You did so much.
[Schindler looks at his car]
Schindler: This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people.
[removing Nazi pin from lapel]
Schindler: This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. [sobbing]
Schindler: I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!
What about you and me? Are there ways in which we, too, are blind to the suffering of those around us? Are there times when we, too, ignore the needs of others because it is too inconvenient or painful to help? Instead of lamenting in hindsight, “I could have done more” at the end of the day, I pray that we will wake up each morning and say with foresight, “I can and will do more.” Whatever it takes.