On Pennsylvania’s pedophile scandals …

Published 9:15 am Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Column: Donald Kaul, Other Words

In one of those strange coincidences that make life read like a cheap novel, Jerry Sandusky and Monsignor William Lynn were convicted at almost the same moment by two Pennsylvania juries of charges growing out of sex scandals involving the molestation of underage youngsters.

Donald Kaul

Not that the two cases are mirror images of each other.

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Sandusky is a former football coach at Penn State University. Lynn is a former aide to the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and was secretary of the clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Sandusky was found guilty of molesting young boys dozens of times over the past 20 years. Lynn was found guilty of covering up sexual abuses committed by priests under his supervision.

Sandusky in all likelihood will spend the rest of his life in prison. Lynn faces a sentence of three and a half to seven years.

But these cases are parallel examples of two grand, exalted institutions fleeing their moral responsibilities in hopes of avoiding an embarrassing scandal. As the institutions covered up the sex abuses in their ranks, the lives of dozens of young innocents were sacrificed with hardly a thought.

What is it about the sexual molestation of children that institutions like the Catholic Church and Penn State don’t understand? I’ll lay it out for them:

It is not acceptable to allow adults to sexually molest children. If you find out it’s going on, you stop it.

There. Does that sound controversial to you? Complex?

I suppose by now we should have become accustomed to the Catholic hierarchy’s hypocrisy, but enabling pedophile priests to prey on helpless children — while cracking down on nuns who err on the side of compassion for the poor — is beyond contempt.

I applaud the conviction of Monsignor Lynn. It’s a long overdue sign that the church’s habit of protecting pedophiles is as bankrupt legally as it is morally.

The Penn State case is still hard to digest, because of where it happened and whom it involved.

For decades Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was a virtual icon of probity in his profession. In a business whose moral climate can sometimes resemble a sewer, he did things the right way. He didn’t cheat, he held his players to a high standard of behavior, and he saw to it that they went to class and graduated. He accepted a pay lower than the market would have granted him and donated considerable sums of money to the school’s library system, all the while becoming the winningest college coach in the sport’s history.

All of this earned him a godlike status in Pennsylvania. They raised statues to him. They named their babies after him. “Joe Pa” became an indestructible symbol of integrity.

But when a young assistant came to him and said that he’d seen Sandusky, Paterno’s former right-hand man, having sexual intercourse with a boy in the school’s shower room, Joe reacted with none of the shock and anger you might expect of a moral paragon. Instead, he merely passed the information on to higher authorities, showing no sense of urgency.

Those authorities — a vice president and the athletic director — didn’t take action on the report. Sandusky continued to use the university’s facilities to entrap vulnerable youngsters and sexually abuse them, apparently without a word of protest from Paterno or anyone else.

Eventually the scandal became public. Paterno and the university’s president lost their jobs and two of their colleagues were indicted. In a final grim footnote, Paterno died of cancer a short time later.

But by that time he was a ruined man, his lifetime of achievement rendered hollow.

I’ve never thought that molestation was the chief issue in either the Penn State or Catholic cases. Rather it was that these two august institutions covered up the scandal, in the church’s case even transferring predatory priests, enabling them to continue to practice their pedophilia in a new venue.

Tell me again: What exactly were they protecting? The reputations of their institutions?

What reputations?


OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., and writes for otherwords.org.