The Penn State Scandal and Denominations

Gerald "Jerry" Sandusky, center, is placed in a police car in Bellefonte, Pa. Sandusky, a former member of the Penn State football coaching staff, is charged with sexually abusing eight boys. (AP Photo/Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, Commonwealth Media Services)

After yesterday’s bouquet-throwing, I’ve got a brickbat in hand today for Christian denominations.  Thanks to a tip from Doug Pagitt yesterday, I tuned into an hour on Minnesota Public Radio News.  The Penn State child sexual abuse scandal was being discussed, more specifically, the ethics thereof.

Prof. Daryl Koehn

One of the guests was Daryl Koehn, Professor in the ethics and business law department at St. Thomas University, and author of The Nature of Evil.

One after the other, callers to the show proclaimed that they would have called 911 immediately if they had seen what Mike McQueary saw.  The online chat during the show, archived on the show’s page, shows the same thing.  Here’s an example:

But Professor Koehn repeatedly rebuffed those sentiments. People in big, bureaucratic systems do not report unethical behavior.  At a subconscious level, she said, people in those systems convince themselves that the system will root out the bad guys.  That what systems are for right?

But, in fact, a bureaucracy takes on a life of its own.  Bureaucracies operate by rules, and they develop personalities, as it were.  And one thing that a bureaucracy does not care about is the well-being of a 10-year-old boy, even if he is (allegedly) being raped in a shower.  A bureaucracy cares about one thing: It’s own survival.  And to survive, a bureaucracy plays tricks on the minds of the otherwise ethically sound individuals within.

When I am expressing doubts and reservations about Christian denominational bureaucracies — or about some emergent churches’ hesitancy to join them — denominationalists often argue with me.  They say that the denomination provides accountability and a support network.  But those who study modern bureaucracies have found just the opposite.  Bureaucracies operate by laws, like:

  • Moore’s Law: Large bureaucracies cannot possibly achieve their goals.
  • Parkinson’s Law: In a bureaucracies, work expands so as to fill the time available to complete it.
  • Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself.

Sadly, those who are in denominational bureaucracies are the least able to see the forest for the trees in this regard.  But the systemic failure at Penn State should frighten anyone who’s part of a large bureaucratic system.

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  • jcarlgregg

    Amen. David Brooks made some similar points today in his column, “Let’s All Feel Superior” ( My wife is also reading the related and devastating book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” by Samantha Power (

  • Patrick

    Given what you say about bureaucracies (which is a good start on their endemic problems) how can you support their takeover of health care, energy, banking, etc., etc. through an increased role for the state and federal governments?

    Your bullets are exactly why I so vehemently disagree with ObamaCare, energy grants, Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxely and the list goes on.

    • Ditto to this thought of Patrick.

  • Stephen Hood

    As awful as this mess is, I don’t think the failure of a bureaucracy to handle this is endemic of the failure of bureaucracies across the board. Bureaucracies are self preservationist but so are all human institutions (the self, the family, the tribe, the neighborhood). I do agree that bureaucracies should shudder at the lack of action demonstrated by Penn State (and the Roman Catholic Church et al), but any group can be compromised by abuse and it doesn’t require a bureaucracy to cover up heinous activities. Maybe we place too much trust in institutions and our emotional attachment makes us ask, “how could that happen here.”

    I’ve watched my denominational family both act heroically and fail miserably. Yet, your children are no more safe in a small emergent church than a large Catholic cathedral unless the culture is empowered to act with bravery.

  • Larry Barber

    Patrick, bureaucracies are not limited to governments. Ask anybody whose worked for a large corporation. I’ve worked for both, and both can be sclerotic and more interested in self-preservation than the function they are supposed to provide. However when it comes to health care, in addition to bureaucratic inefficiencies, whether public or private, you also have a good deal of moral hazard associated with for profit companies administering health care. Too often is just more profitable to let people die or stay sick. Funny thing is that insurance companies are so good at spotting moral hazard in their customers, but are blind to it when looking at themselves.

    • Patrick

      Couldn’t agree with you more that all bureaucracies (thank God for spell check) are sclerotic. But I’d much rather have me choosing my health care than a politician and bureaucrat.

      Interestingly, your example is exactly what the UK health system is doing today: withholding care in the hopes they die (or go somewhere else) in order to save money. Don’t believe me? Click this link:

      My problem (in just the health care example) is using the authority of the state to deliver crappy health care based on politics, not health, as the UK has shown over and over and over and over.

      • Larry Barber

        Unless you’re rich or self-employed you don’t get to choose your health-care, your employer does that for you (more moral hazard there, as well). The difference between the example you give for Great Britain and what happens in the US is that in the GB the perpetrators are disciplined, in the US they get bigger bonuses and pay raises for holding down their “medical loss ratios”. I also wonder why it’s always Great Britain’s system that people bring up in these discussions, why not France’s, Germany’s or even Canada’s? Could it be that all these places have systems that care for everybody, have objectively better outcomes than the so-called free market system, and do it for less money?

        • Patrick

          I used the UK because it shows that the exact thing you hypothesize might be going on in the private sector but is actual policy in at least one government-run system. Cold comfort that after they have killed my father to save money somebody MAY get some slap on the wrist – if the politics warrant it.

          The other countries do not provide better care for less. If that were the case, people would vote with their feet and move there. Instead, people come here, which is great for us.

          Don’t forget the main point Tony made: Penn State let down those children because they were more worried about their system than the kids. Governments are forced to worry about political calculations, not what is the right thing to do. For just the latest example, see the Obama Administration’s demand that Solyndra not fire people until after the 201o elections.

          If you would like to rely on government-run health care, that is great for you, just don’t force me into it. I’ll take my chances with the world’s greatest health care system.

  • Alan K

    The professor is correct. Former Baylor University basketball coach Abar Rouse refused to lie for then head coach Dave Bliss in an ugly scandal back in 2003. Rouse, who had been threatened by Bliss to be fired if Rouse refused to go along with a falsified story, decided to tape conversations with Bliss for the sake of protecting himself. Bliss was fired by Baylor, but Rouse has only been able to find one short term job in college basketball since then. The lesson? Whistleblowers don’t get hired, and bureaucracies by their very nature serve themselves.

    That all said, there is no such thing as an institutionless reality. Denominations exist and will continue to exist whether we are fond of them or not. The real problem is not their existence but whether they believe their message. If they did really believe then denominations would not fear losing their existence for the sake of the gospel.

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  • Sieves

    Professor Koehn is sadly correct. Even many of our current economic problems can be attributed to this same type of career risk that ultimately caused the Penn State crisis. Career risk likely hindered authority figures such as Wall Street CEOs, entrusted with our money, to halt a Ponzi scheme that ultimately would send Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros, etc. to the grave. These Wall Street institutions were literally filled with Ivy League MBAs and finance geniuses who fully understood what was happening in the mortgage arena. These specialists understood that selling products like CMOs and insurance on rotten bundled mortgages was sure to end ugly. Golden handcuffs are as psychologically restrictive as their steel counterparts are physically.

    Calling out possibly the most “religious” college football program in America had to involve overwhelming career risk. Just behold the way fans have reacted to threats to the Penn State football program. There have been near riots over Joe Paterno being fired rather than being able to complete the season as a coach (3 lousy games)! Fans have camped outside Paterno’s home in vigil manner to save the prominence of the football program. As the insightful Professor Koehn points out, when it comes to an insignificant ten year old boy, who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?
    Excellent blog site, Tony!

  • I made some similar points over at my blog, referencing Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society.

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