False idols at Penn State and elsewhere


Those who doubt that sports play a pseudo-religious role in American life now have their answer. Whether we are talking high-school football, high-school hoops in Indiana, baseball in Boston, college football in Alabama or pro football in Green Bay, it should be clear to all that — at least in terms of sociology — the line between fans and believers has all but been erased.

Back in my Denver days, I wrote a long memo to editors arguing that, as the religion-beat guy, I should be included (it was the born-again Dan Reeves era, when even the pre-divorce John Elway was an evangelical) in the Super Bowl coverage team. I said that if the Broncos were not a religion, Colorado didn’t have a religion.

The editors laughed. Sure enough, the night before the big game — Broncos vs. believer Joe Gibbs and his ‘Skins — the big story was NFL discomfort over the two teams praying together. I helped get the story covered, by telephone.

But back to today’s issue.

“Idolized” is the key word in a remarkable Washington Post column by Sally Jenkins about the hell that has descended on Happy Valley, Pa.

Jenkins has written a controversial column, in and of itself. Many readers Post (online Q&A here) were infuriated by the headline on her piece: “Blame for the Penn State scandal does not lie with Joe Paterno.”

And then there were the opening words of her lede:

Try to forgive Joe Paterno: When he looked at Jerry Sandusky, he didn’t see a dirty old man in a raincoat. He saw a friend, a close colleague, and a churchy do-gooder. He saw a nice guy. You’d have seen the same thing. Think not? You think you can see a clear-cut difference between an alleged child molester and a youth coach? How exactly? By the hunchback and the M-shaped scar on his forehead that says, “I’m a molester”?

We’ll get back to that phrase “churchy do-gooder” in a minute.

The key to this piece is that Jenkins covers it as a child-molestation case, one that at this stage certainly appears to center on the crimes of a serial pedophile who created his own pool (the Second Mile charity) in which to troll for the weak and the defenseless. Thus, she sought information from an expert in the science of catching these monsters — former FBI agent Ken Lanning — and then applied what she learned to the hallowed status that has been granted by millions to Paterno and Penn State football.

You must read it all, before commenting. Here are two key passages, both of them of specific interest to GetReligion readers:

According to Lanning, who spent 35 years profiling pedophiles, a hallmark of “acquaintance molesters” is that they tend to be deeply trusted and even beloved. They are not strangers, but “one of us.” They are expert at seducing children and are almost as expert at seducing adults, including parents, into believing in them.

“How do we say to kids, ‘The only way these people differ is, they will be nicer to you than most adults?’” Lanning says. “They will listen to you, and shower you with attention and kindness, and so I want you to watch out for this evil bastard.’”

Until we rid ourselves of the myth of the “predator” in the raincoat preying on angelic victims, our discernment will continue to be clouded, says Lanning, who wrote a Justice Department-sponsored manual, “Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis.” And so will our judgment.

With that in mind, now let’s start again. If Sandusky is guilty of molesting, how do we parcel out the responsibility and decide what was preventable? Who should have recognized him, and how?

“Whether it’s the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, USA Swimming, or Little League, you look at these groups and say, why do they keep screwing this up?” Lanning asks.

Paterno, Lanning notes, was in the worst position to recognize Sandusky as a molester. As a close friend, he was among the people that this skilled stalker would have worked the hardest to deceive. As a close friend, Paterno was the person who had the most trust and affection that would have to have been shattered before he could see the truth. Authorities a stage or two removed — such as a college athletic director or president — would have been much more likely to have been able to see the patterns and, thus, have been able to sound an early alarm.

This is not true, argues Jenkins, because the person in question is the beloved JoePa.

This is true because these tragic truths have been seen in thousands and thousands of cases. Certain facts show up time and time again, such as predators focusing on disadvantaged children and those from broken homes. Which brings us to this, the truth that moves her very newsy column beyond football:

We need to ask ourselves what the worst sex abuse stories of the past few years have in common. Sports are hardly the only area deviants infiltrate; but they are one in which identifying them is made even harder by the tendency to consider identification an act of disloyalty, because it might damage an iconic franchise. And that is a hallmark of institutions that fail to protect victims. You want a profile of a place that harbors a profiled molester? Here it is:

“This is something that can happen to all institutions, but it is worse in organizations that have a certain aura about them,” Lanning says. “Two of the largest organizations in this country that have the biggest problem with this are the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. When you have that image, a program idolized as pure, the harder it is to admit you’ve made a mistake. If you have this need to appear to be perfect, the harder it is to admit that you made an error in judgment.”

This brings us, of course, to the emails I keep receiving from Catholics who are furious, once again, that their church is being pulled into 99.9 percent of the stories that are being written about Penn State. How many stories? I have tried to find out if Jenkins was on target when she put the word “churchy” in front of “do-gooder” in her lede.

I have given up trying to find out if there is a religion hook there, in large part because you can’t do online searches for “church” and “Sandusky,” or “Sandusky” and “Catholic,” without getting several thousand hits. If anyone knows if there was an explicit religious angle to the work of The Second Mile (other than the biblical reference in the title) please let me know.

Catholics simply need to understand that the decades of scandals in their church about the sexual abuse of teen-agers and, in many fewer cases, young children are simply going to be cited in stories on this topic for years and years to come. That’s the facts. The problem, however, is that many journalists seem to think that the Catholic church, alone, fits the predatory patterns (and the cover-ups that follow) that can be seen elsewhere.

True, many scribes do mention the Boy Scouts — another conservative institution. However, few dig into the similar patterns found in a wide variety of religious and charitable groups. Southern Baptists, for example, are becoming increasingly aware of this issue (a rather brave statement here), in part because their congregational approach to church government makes it hard to trace the criminals and to warn others. Liberal churches harbor trusted monsters, as well.

And then there is the issue that really angers Catholics, the lack of widespread coverage of similar scandals in public schools (this is, sure enough, a “conservative news” topic). It’s hard to ignore that subject, but oh so many do.

Will a specific religion-angle emerge in the Penn State apocalypse? Should readers be surprised if Sandusky has a history of being abused as a child? Would readers be stunned if he was abused in a church? I am sure that reporters are working those angles, even as I type. Then again, the trail of sin may lead elsewhere. As FBI agent Lanning stressed, and Jenkins wisely reported, there are patterns that only the foolish ignore.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bob Smietana

    Bob Ryan, a columnist at the Boston Globe, referenced Dante’s Inferno today and compared Paterno to a cult leader.

    Ryan wrote:

    So intertwined is Joe Paterno with Penn State that it is no hyperbole to equate the relationship between Joe Paterno and Penn State to that of a charismatic leader and his cult followers.

    Rule No. 1 of any cult: No matter how erroneous or damaging his judgment, no one tells the leader what to do. He, and he alone, decides a course of action.

    That is exactly what had been going on at Joe Paterno U for years, and we were watching its ultimate manifestation.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    One of the journalism issues that will be interesting and perhap disturbing to watch is how in the sports world Advocacy reporting meshes with “lets find out the facts” in not so good ways. A lot of blurring the last two days which I don’t think is helpful.

    Thank you for bring up the Catholic angle and yes that makes very angry too. I am glad I am not the only one

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    What I was trying to say: The Catholic angle is valid and even required.

    The Catholic only angle is insulting and close to bigotry. It also ignores tons of factual material.

    Did that come across, Catholic readers?

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Here’s the connection between Penn State and the Catholic scandal:
    An assistant coach saw Sandusky raping a 10-year-old in a locker room on March 1, 2002. That was at least one month into the national non-stop headlines that began in Boston, about the failure of many bishops to remove and report priests who had molested kids. I cannot understand how any administrator in spring 2002 could have failed to draw parallels, have failed to realize that failure to take maximum decisive action, would spell doom for their institution. Even if they had no moral conscience, they had to have seen the potential lawsuits.
    The Post writer is correct that pedophiles are very difficult to spot because they appear to be such great people. However, the point at which the coach personally witnessed locker room sodomy on a little boy is the point at which the columnist loses me. Paterno could not possibly have denied the eye-witness testimony. He and others knew about a horrific predator and failed to report him to the police.No excuses with this one.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    Oh it came across to me and I get your point. It is rather insulting and in fact I would argue by going to perhaps preceived or agenda oriented items about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church makes the problem worse.
    It’s more striking because besides a Grand Jury report as to Penn State we are pretty early in the process to start with certainty talking motivation which are often complicated

    That is one reason why the expert you link is so crucial. I have spent some time tweeting with sports “journalists” todaythat has it occured to them yet to ask their local universities what child protection guidlines they have for the numerous summer camps their schools had. One admitted (that tweeted a Vatican Penn State reference) that he had never thought of that so that’s progress.

    That being said the link of Mohler you have and that is on his blog today I think might be one of the biggest news stories relgious wise coming out of this today. Those last couple of paragraphs are pregnant with implications.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    She was not saying Paterno was not in error. She was saying that his refusal to grasp it and act is a CONSISTENT FACT in the cases the FBI have handled for years and years. It’s a blindness that is to be expected.

    I am sure more details will emerge. The early evidence is that JoePa was not told details in 1998 and that the 2002 grad student said what he saw was contact “of a sexual nature,” with no lurid details.

    Again, NO EXCUSE. Only tragic consistency with other cases.

    Read the Jenkins Q&A for more insights.

  • Ed Mechmann

    I work in the Child Protection office of a Catholic archdiocese. I understand very well why the comparisons are made to our experience, and I don’t see it necessarily as an act of bigotry. Journalistic laziness, maybe, but not necessarily hostility. The reality is that we are the most prominent example of an institution that has gone through this problem. The objection I would have is if the journalists failed also to note that we have learned from the experience and have instituted unprecedented and unparallelled protective programs.

    As for the merits of the Jenkins piece, the unfortunate reality is that the warning signs of predators are hard to identify, and can easily be confused with the behavior of charismatic, empathetic adults who mentor needy children. This is why clear protective measures, like codes of conduct that ban adults from being alone with children and gift-giving, are so important in preventing abuse and identifying problems. They make bad behavior stand out. But very few institutions had such codes of conduct in the late 1990′s and early 2000′s. The Church does now. I wonder how many other organizations have followed suit.

    The larger point, though, is that prevention is one thing, but response is another. There is absolutely no excuse whatsoever, under any circumstances, for the failure of the individuals and of the university to respond properly to the eyewitness reports of rape that were brought to their attention. Instead of kicking the report upstairs, there should have been a race for the telephone to call the police.

  • Bob Smietana


    The grand jury report is here.

    It is graphic in detail. It says that a grad assistant heard the sounds of sexual activity in shower on Penn State property. He looked into the shower and here is what he saw:

    “He saw a naked boy, Victim 2, who he estimated to be 10 years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky.”

    Sandusky was caught abusing a child by a grad assistant who did not do anything to help that child. Instead he called his father, who did not tell him to help the child but told him to leave the building and come home. The next day the grad assistant, according to the report, went to Paterno’s house and told him what he had seen with his own eyes.

    Paterno says the grad assistant did come to his house, but when he called his bosses, he did not tell them the graphic details – only that one of his employees was “fondling or doing something sexual in nature to a young boy.”

    There’s no excuse to say he somehow did not know what happened or know what the right thing to do was.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Did you read the Jenkins piece and the Q&A (and mine, while we are at it)?

    No one has offered an excuse for Paterno’s behavior. What the FBI pro explains is that this behavior is tragically normal.

    Thus, if one must discuss the ISSUE, instead of the point of Jenkins’ COLUMN, the Ed at No. 7 has the point down cold. That’s the larger issue. The folks at the top of the chain must create laws and chains of authority that demand certain responses in light of the moral and civic laws.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Spiking all comments that are not on media issues, if possible related to the actual — not imagined — content of Jenkins’ article.

    There are THOUSANDS of places to debate the details of the Sandusky scandal. Please go there.

  • Sharon

    Yet, as we’ve seen in the Kansas City diocese, establishing written codes of conduct are not enough.

    The problem comes back to this cultish idolization of institutions, whether it be of a religious organization or a football program, and the men who run them, whether it’s Bishop Finn or Joe Paterno.

    I also wonder if there’s something about these almost exclusively male-run organizations. Would a woman who came upon the same scene McQueary did have acted in the same way? I doubt it.

  • Bob Smietana


    I did read the column and the Q&A with Jenkins. She really hit the nail on the head with this line:
    “Try to forgive Joe Paterno: When he looked at Jerry Sandusky, he didn’t see a dirty old man in a raincoat. He saw a friend, a close colleague, and a churchy do-gooder. He saw a nice guy.”

    The truth is most people will ignore facts that don’t fit their version of reality. That appears to be the case with Paterno, and is often the case in clerical sex abuse from all denominations. People won’t believe a kid when the kid says that a beloved pastor abused them. …

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    I am still waiting for a reporter to dig out the facts from this CDC paper, which reports a survey of various health related activities in teens. The report notes a high rate of sexual abuse of children (4-11%) and the percentage is higher among gay youth (10-28%).

    As a woman doc, I mainly worked with the girls, but the fathers/stepfathers/uncles/mom’s boyfriend who did the abuse tended to be a nice guy, and often mom supported him, not the girl…

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    The problem, however, is that many journalists seem to think that the Catholic church, alone, fits the predatory patterns (and the cover-ups that follow) that can be seen elsewhere.

    This is a crucial observation. It goes to the most important piece of this ugly puzzle: the responsibility of reporters to protect potential victims from likely predators.

    By this I mean that the media has a moral obligation to unearth this sort of filth anywhere it occurs. But this seems to be unlikely, for a number of reasons. Yes, there are journalists and commentators who simply dislike the Catholic Church and, thus, seek to keep the conversation on sexual abuse of minors limited to that sphere. But I also think that most people are so horrified by such stories that they need to control its scope. And so many seek assurances that such crimes occurred in the Catholic Church only because it is Catholic—because it forces men to not marry, or because it is naturally corrupt, or what have you.

    But the Penn State story shows us that such evil can happen anywhere. For all the common elements, there is one that the media seems reticent to cover: all human hearts are capable of great evil.

    This is the story that needs covering—again and again—but it is the one story that journalists are often ill-equipped to cover because it gets to the heart of what faith and religion offers to the human race: an antidote for human failings that comes not from within, but from God.

  • Julia

    As a Catholic, I was not at all offended by the writer’s bringing in the Catholic Church’s experience. She also mentioned the Boy Scouts, youth workers, sports programs and the like. And, for such a complex subject, she hit the major points of the FBI profiler’s analysis of offenders and how people close to them respond to problems. Then she related them to the Penn State situation and other well-known institutions – why not mention the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts? Those are the ones most known by people.

    Ms. Jenkins Q & A was very enlightening. She was very patient with understandably angry people and would patiently say over and over that she was interested in presenting an expert’s wisdom on the typical responses of well-meaning people – to understand how this happens.

    As a Catholic, I myself have been wondering why the people at the parish level didn’t see clues to what was going on with the pedophile in their midst. The parents, the teachers, the parishioners – these were the folks who saw these guys day after day up-close, after all.

    I think she’s done a great service. How is this going to end unless good-hearted people are clued in to what they are inadvertently not seeing.

    I’ve had the child safety training in my diocese, but I still learned from this insightful article.

    Having had quite a few cases in Juvenile Court, I can second her insistantly repeating that you can’t tell child molesters from looking at them. People just don’t want to know that scarey people live in all kind of neighborhoods and you might even know one.

    It was a very impressive article that might help readers overcome their natural inclination to disregard evidence of child abuse. Hope she gets some kind of award for it and that it gets picked up widely.

    And, as a Catholic, I appreciated the fact that she didn’t hit us over the head with the fact that regular, married guys in the neighborhood can also be molesters; without expressly saying it, the article showed that it isn’t just priests struggling with or deformed by celibacy.

  • Bern

    The headline may have been less controversial if it included a single extra word: “entirely” or a reasonable alternative adjective. I am one of those nonbelievers when it comes to football or any other team sport for that matter, and shake my head when people toss out those well, it’s understandable he/she didn’t believe it because after all etc. How is this any different from a cult protecting it’s leader?

    Jenkins asks: With that in mind, now let’s start again. If Sandusky is guilty of molesting, how do we parcel out the responsibility and decide what was preventable? Who should have recognized him, and how?

    Answering that last question is simple: the guy that SAW Sandusky ASSAULT a CHILD in 2002. Not only did he NOT try to stop him, he didn’t even call 911. WTH????

    Certainly, Jenkins is on to something when she asks WHY it was so difficult for JoePa to “do” anything other than what he did do, which was notify his superiors. What I want to know is why McQuearie and his father did nothing.

    There’s a story in the NYTs yesterday that barely scratches the surface of this–http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/sports/ncaafootball/aspiring-coach-in-middle-of-colleges-scandal.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=McQueary&st=cse

  • John Iliff

    Akin to the “Catholic angle” journalistically, I’ve waited for years to see a story about why – largely – Protestant clergy of various denominations, Orthodox Christian clergy, etc. still fly under the radar of media scrutiny. One would have thought this latest controversy would have created even a tiny bit of interest.

    I read Abuse Tracker, so, yes; I know that here and there in the small city market there is the occasional story of the non-Catholic clergy offender. Is it that journalists become numb or like most of us it’s easier to go for the low-hanging fruit? Or … in some cases, is it that the secular -and even religious – media reflexively shields from major scrutiny stories that are ‘counter-intuitive’ to some broader cultural narrative?

    Witness how the story of Katharine Jefferts Schori’s role in receiving admitted offender Bede Parry (while she was ordinary of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada) just never seems to regain traction. GetReligion has asked that very question.

    Given Jefferts Schori’s near-iconic status in mainline Protestantism and equally so in the aging left-wing of American Catholicism; I can’t but wonder at the broad journalistic – shall we say – deliberate disinterest in this story. In a word, I marvel that it seemingly interests only the largely-Episcopalian blogging ghetto. A more suspicious person might wonder if powerful, discreet journalistic agendas were in play.

    I’m so glad that all the interesting parallels are between Penn State and the Roman Catholic Hierarchy … and not Bishop Jefferts Schori!

    John Iliff
    Episcopalian and SNAP parent

  • charles Woodbury

    ” To be wise as serpents, and guileless as doves.”
    In these days we live, maybe it is better to remember the adage, ” I never met a con man I didn’t like.”

  • Will

    But of course, misconduct in the Episcopal Church does not fit the narrative that It is all caused by celibacy, or refusal to ordain women, or both (since the “explanation” is seldom precise.)

  • Skylark

    If upon further investigation it comes out that Sandusky was abused by a priest in his youth…will that let him off the hook here? Morally speaking? Will this give fans the “excuse” they are looking for to pardon their tin gods at Penn State? At the end of the day, are we back to Catholic bashing even though these fiendish acts occured at a state sanctioned secular institute? Can these guys claim to be Catholic really? On who’s authority? Why does the Catholic Church get more press here than other institutions that admittedly experience similar crimes?

  • Stan

    Sandusky is apparently a Methodist. Possibly an usher, though the pastor of the St. Paul Methodist Church that he and his wife attend refuses to confirm it, citing rules of confidentiality. In an ESPN story, the author says, “privacy concerns preclude the Rev. Edwin Zeiders from confirming that.” (I didn’t know that ushers at Methodist churches were protected by confidentiality clauses. Perhaps it is the pastor who doesn’t want his church associated with Sandusky?)