This post may be the first thing I have ever willingly written about anything sports-related. Two days ago I had never heard of Joe Paterno. I barely knew there was such a thing as Penn State, much less Penn State football.
Today, I know that Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State defensive coordinator (whatever that is), is being charged with 40 criminal counts of molesting eight young boys. Not only that, but the allegations against him have brought down several other people as well: two other Penn State administrators are being criminally charged with failing to report what they knew to the police, and today Joe Paterno, their famous and well-loved football coach, was fired by the Penn State board of regents along with Graham Spanier, the university president. Both men apparently knew of at least one assault by Sandusky on a young boy in 2002, but failed to follow up appropriately.
The Penn State Vice Chairman of Trustees, John P. Surma, commented on the firings by saying that the university “is much larger than athletic programs.”
I very much respect the decision Penn State has made. As far as I can tell, no one—including them—is contesting that Paterno and Spanier failed to do the right thing. (The only one contesting anything thus far, it seems, is Jerry Sandusky.) Too often, a popular athletic program gets a free pass from university administration far past the point of reason.
All this said, the Penn State situation should be a hard reminder to reexamine the judicial response facing the Catholic Church regarding their many, many sex scandals. Just as members of the Penn State administration failed to act when faced with information that something terrible was going on, members of the Catholic Church hierarchy have even more systematically and even more indefensibly covered up widespread and pervasive abuse. With what result? That this past October for the first time a U.S. member of the Catholic Church faces charges for failing to report child abuse—when he discovered that a priest in his diocese had child pornography on his computer.
That a member of the clergy—supposedly of a higher moral fiber than the rest of us—would take advantage of the weak and vulnerable in such a despicable way is bad enough. That other members of the clergy would cover it up and, in the cover up, allow it to continue, is even worse. Let us learn from Penn State. A zero tolerance policy for condoning sexual abuse (even through simple inaction) is the least we can do.