Penn State, Paradigms and Poor Me

With all there is to read on the Penn State/Sandusky story, here are two excellent pieces that should rise to the top of the pile:

Read Mark Shea on Betrayal and the Power of a Relationship:

But though lots of combox warriors are quite adept at fantasizing about how bravely they would have behaved and how vile Mike McQueary is in comparison to their brave selves, how they would have taken a baseball bat to Sandusky had they caught him in flagrante, the reality is that, if the Milgram experiments are any indication, a huge percentage of people are pretty well programmed to avoid trouble with authority figures rather than open a can of whupass. Sorry, but that’s the stuff we fallen humans are made of, as our first Pope learned when he confidently declared, “Though everyone else deny you, I will never deny you.” Indeed, despite the flattering and heroic picture so many Laptop Ninjas have of themselves, righteously battling evil with flawless martial arts moves and utter rectitude like Buffy and Angel, the real picture of fallen humanity given to us by revelation is that of the apostles in Gethsemane on Holy Thursday: big talk, sleepiness while Jesus sweats blood, a brief show of bluster and bravado against the wrong person (resulting in a severed ear) and then bolting, ass-saving panic such that one of the disciples peeled out of his clothes and ran off naked rather than defend the innocent from evil authority figures. That story is painful to read because that story is a paradigm, not an isolated incident. It has been replayed again and again down the centuries and we chicken shits in comboxes boasting about our courage over Those People Over There know it damn well. That’s why we talk so big.

It’s a long, wide-ranging post and you’ll want to read it all.

Then read James Martin in the WaPo, writing elegantly and well on the traits of narcissism and grandiosity that are characteristic of child sex abusers, and how those qualities segue into hyperdramatic “poor me” defenses that — too often — are answered with a “yes, our poor hero” among the mob.

I’m no psychologist, and no expert in sexual abuse, so I cannot offer any further data other to say this: these words struck me with the force of a lightning bolt. Why? Because the majority of priests I knew who had been removed from ministry because of abuse claims showed precisely these two qualities. And in the case of Jerry Sandusky, Penn State football’s defensive coordinator accused of sexual abuse, we see some signs of both: the narcissist (who–allegedly –commits rape despite the terrible suffering it causes) and the grandiose Pied-Piper (who founds a center for boys).

But there is a further problem, one that is not often spoken about.

In my experience, after the conviction or removal from office or ministry, those two qualities merge in the person with terrible consequences. And these consequences make it far more difficult for the institution to address such cases. The grandiose narcissist now focuses almost exclusively on his own suffering. His removal from office, or from ministry, he believes, is the worst thing that has happened to anyone, and he (or she) laments this fate loudly and frequently. Because of his narcissism he focuses almost entirely on his own troubles; because of his grandiosity he inflates them to ridiculous proportions. He suffers the most. This is the “Poor Me” Syndrome.

Even more dangerous: he draws others into his net, and the suffering of the real victims, those whose lives have been shattered, is overlooked-even by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people. The focus of those within the institution is shifted onto the person they know, rather than the victims that they may not know. “Poor Father,” some parishioners may say, “how he suffers.” It is difficult for a diocese, a religious order, a school, or indeed members of any institution to resist the powerful pull of the grandiose narcissist. Indeed, people often seem unaware that they are being deluded into an overblown sympathy for the wrong “victim.”

Do read it all. I couldn’t help but consider the all-out hysterics that accompanied recent stories of religious superiors or bishops either removing priests from ministry (as with John Corapi) or limiting a priest’s scope while looking into things (Fr. Frank Pavone). While — thankfully — neither of these stories had anything to do with pederasty, the rallying around celebrity priests, and the vituperation displayed toward superiors who were doing their jobs, was energetic and sometimes scandalously idolatrous. Meanwhile, grandiosity you think?; narcissism, maybe? In their turns (and in very different ways) both Corapi and Pavone (or their agents) made a point of serving up red meat to their supporters, who then went wild-dog on fellow Catholics who were more willing to wait the story out than presume to actually know the truth about anything. They could not focus on anything but the fact that their champion was being tested, or indeed falling. These moments only divided and diminished all involved.

We are all fallen; the world is a broken place. These two articles are helpful.

who is a martial arts fiend and a lawyer writes: Penn State is a tocsin, warning us what happens when our cultural paradigm encourages us to pass the buck.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Judith L

    Thank you for some of the most thoughtful comments on this dreadful story that I have read.

  • Maureen

    Not to mention that religious sister with the gambling problem. You notice that the story was all about her and how she had been treated, but not at all about any restitution to the college or to donors for the money she stole.

  • Greta

    Maureen, great points.

    I wonder about the precedent this sets in what is expected of us in reporting crime. If I see a crime going on at work and report it to my supervisor, do I now have an obligation to report it to the police as well? I also wonder if Joe Paterno had been a strong supporter of Obama and the liberal causes how this might have gone down. Maybe everything would be the same. However, we certainly see differences when accusations hits a republican versus a democrat as with sexual harrassment almost disappearing after Clinton and Monica. What if the secret service or other employees at the white house knew what was going on and only reported it to their supervisor and did not call the police? However, if we are now going to get very serious about protecting our young from attack or about the thousands dying in abortions every day, it could be a good thing…

  • Maureen – different from the first Maureen

    Generally I would agree in that we can never know exactly how we would respond. However I think there are some environmental influences that need to be considered – if I, a small woman, saw a child being raped in a back alley in a bad part of town – maybe not, but I would still call the police. But the witness in this case was a 6’4″ football coach and the place was the locker room of a university – the only danger to the witness was the future of his job. Jobs can always be found and I suspect more people would have supported him (maybe not people from Penn State, but I can’t think of wanting to work at a place where child rape was ignored/condoned!).

    The larger issue that I find disturbing in this is even discussed – at what point exactly did our society become so feeble and weak and afraid that we will not report witnessing a child being raped to the POLICE – to heck with protocols – IT IS A CRIME!!! PERIOD!!!!

  • TXRed

    Greta, in most states the only crime that has a “must report to police” clause is child abuse: report it to your supervisor but after calling the police. For all other crimes, you might check with your company and local law enforcement to see what is recommended. That said, if someone were breaking in through my office window, I’d probably call the police first! :)