Just Thinking about the Penn State Scandal

The scandal at Penn State has got me thinking.  For those of you who do not pay attention to the news, the alleged crime is that a prominent assistant coach for 30 years at Penn State used a charity that he founded and the facilities and legitimacy of Penn State to systematically abuse young boys for at least the last thirteen years, both while he was a coach and in retirement. Further, in 1998 and 2002 the school was made known of these alleged crimes and failed to respond in a way that would have definitively stopped the actions of the assistant coach. 

I get the tragedy of our brokenness that causes something like this to happen.  The assistant coach, if the charges are true, is a disturbed man. His cravings and addictions have forever injured lives in ways that many unfortunately are all too familiar.  People can overcome being sexually abused, but it is a difficult and long road.  Further, if the charges are true, he has forever tarnished somehow the good he has done in his profession and his charity by his inability or unwillingness to stop. I have seen our members destroy their lives in similar ways by their own sinfulness.  The pain, brokenness and destruction are all too familiar.

What has got me thinking, are the actions of the university leaders (Athletic Director, Board and President), Coach Paterno and a certain assistant who witnessed a crime happening in 2002. We still do not know exactly what happened or exactly the response of these people in power.  Yet, we do know this much. None of them took definitive action to make sure these crimes would stop and all of them were in a position to do so.  Why?

The why is what has me thinking. I think a cover up to save the university embarrassment is too easy of an answer and doesn’t get at the root of our humanity. It may have been in the mix, but likely only one ingredient. These are people who have acted responsibly before, made tough decisions before, why not now? Surely, they were as horrified as anyone else at the allegations and took them seriously. All of them seem to be “good” people, whatever that may mean.  Why did good people stay silent?  And how does their silence reflect on our larger human condition?  To understand how they justified their actions to themselves, will reveal to all of us about the power of sin in this world.

Several years ago, I had a friend who severely violated his call as pastor.  He did not break a law that needed to be reported to the authorities, but he did break a trust that needed to be reported to his bishop.  I did not do this.  Why?  I was going to give him time “to do the right thing” himself.  Soon after I found out about it, someone had reported it to the bishop and I was off the hook.  However, if he had simply stopped, promised never to do it again would I have said okay and still not have reported it?  Probably, I am ashamed to say.  Ashamed, because even if the action was a onetime thing, people needed to investigate what happened to know for sure, he violated his trust with that congregation and he needed to leave, the whispers in the pews of what happened needed to become transparent admissions so healing could start.

None of this happens if nothing is ever reported. Healing never begins and more people are injured. I know this to be true because I can name five congregations where a pastor has done similar things and this has been the result. I bear responsibility for the continued and multiplying results of Sin by my silence. I was in a position to something and I did not.

Why did I keep silent? Not calling the bishop was easy to justify to myself.  I had been told in confidence by a third party who was not told by my friend but by someone involved. Maybe, it was all a lie. I didn’t see anything. No one made any admission to me nor had my friend made an admission to anyone that had spoken to me. What evidence would I give to the bishop? Could I at the least tarnish my friend’s reputation with the bishop and probably destroy his career by this hearsay?  If tough choices were easy, they would not be called touch choices.

Like Coach Paterno and the others, I stayed silent. I can tell myself that my friend’s sins were no way near as heinous or even illegal as the Penn State case. If that had happened, I would have surely done the right thing. I hope this is true, but I can’t be sure. I only know for sure what I did. I failed to do the right thing when I had the opportunity.

It is easy for all of us to be critical of those who did not do enough to stop these crimes from continuing. We should grieve all the lives that would not have been harmed had something more definitive been done in 1998 when people with the power to make a difference first heard of these reports. It is easy for us to judge but would that help heal what sin has worked to destroy?

Instead, we could all be convicted by this story, convicted of both the power of sin, and our participation in sin’s continuing destruction. A sign of Christian maturity is not necessarily becoming less sinful, but rather respecting the power of sin in our own life.  How does the confession we share in church go?  If we fail to see ourselves in the sins of Coach Paterno, we fool ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess…

Sin’s grip on me would seem to be overwhelming, but by the stronger grip of grace I know it is not. At the end of the day, forgiveness is the only thing that can heal and bring reconciliation to the destruction of sin. Forgiveness begins with confession, but maybe we all have something to confess, today. It is in moments like these scandals where I am not only saddened by the pain that we cause each other, but I am reminded of my contribution to the pain of our world.

May all of us, trusting the promise of grace shared in Jesus, share confessions, hear confessions and forgive. If we cannot see ourselves in the brokenness of others, we fail to see Christ before us. When we stop seeing Christ, we stop trusting his grace.  Healing begins only when forgiveness is offered and grace is known. I think we need to concentrate on healing now.

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