Penn State, Paradigms and Poor Me

Penn State, Paradigms and Poor Me November 14, 2011

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.

Browse Our Archives