What are we to make of the Penn State scandal?
As we live in the middle of Big Ten country, it is a question that is asked by those who drop in and by parishioners. Listening to people here during the last week, people seem divided on JoePa, presumably giving him some credit for the decades of running a program with nary a hint of scandal. Some have questioned whether the firing makes sense, but most realize the position of the Board. Quite a few people have been quick to condemn the 28 year old Graduate Assistant who fled rather than rescue the young boy named as victim #2 in the Grand Jury’s proceedings. All have been universal in the condemnation of the assistant coach who allegedly victimized at least 8 youths considered “at risk” by the commonwealth and common sense. And everyone wonders whether the AD and other school officials were part of a cover-up to protect the pristine image of PSU (prior to last week’s revelations, Penn State was one of only four members of the NCAA never to have been the subject of an investigation for its athletic department) or whether they were browbeaten by JoePa into leaving the former assistant coach alone.
What are we to make of it? It is a tragedy of epic proportions. The innocence of anywhere from 8 to maybe as many as two dozen young boys was stolen by a trusted figure. Worse, many adults, when alerted to the problems over the years by the victims, chose “not to hear” what the boys were saying. Those that needed to be safeguarded the most were ignored by those charged with the responsibility of watching out for them, even after the accusations had grown in number and credibility. Imagine, this predator was known this year to have brought youths to campus, and nobody said anything. The reputation of an amazing leader has been tarnished by a series of bad decisions. That JoePa had an amazingly positive impact on thousands of (mostly) men during his career cannot be overstated. That his blindness, whatever its root, allowed the victimization to occur far longer than it should also cannot be overstated. I know, he reported the suspected activities to his immediate supervisors. Make no mistake, JoePa was the face of Penn State. Once he became aware of the details of the rape of victim #2, he had an obligation to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again! He, better than anyone else on that campus, could have preserved the innocence of other victims, the reputation of the school, and his own legacy.
To a point, I have some sympathy for the Graduate Assistant. People have been quick to condemn him for not rescuing the young boy from the middle of the actions he described to the Grand Jury. While I understand the criticism, I do not believe that such criticism is fair. None of know how we will respond in the face of events. We like to think we know, but until we come face to face with the events, we can never be sure. I am not as quick to condemn him over a failure to act when he walked into the locker room and encountered the events described in the proceeding. However, this same assistant coach encountered the former assistant coach in the presence of other youths and admits he said and did nothing. Really?! Absolutely nothing?! Those events all occurred after he had had time to reflect upon the events he witnessed initially. Yes, I understand the former assistant was a beloved friend of JoePa, but he was also running an organization that helped troubled youths! But the assistant knew, absolutely knew, that his former coach was a predator--he had seen it with his own eyes and heard it with his own ears. He chose poorly in choosing to keep his mouth shut.
What should we think about the mess? I came across some words from Tim Henderson, who works as a pastor in State College. Mr. Henderson did a fabulous job of refocusing Christians on the real problem at Penn State. He reminded us, in the context of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that there is a deficiency of love in State College. Godly love, he asserts, would have insisted upon far too many people acting far sooner to protect these youths. They failed to act, he asserts, because there was a lack of godly love, a lack of love for one’s neighbor. The scandal, he thinks, will shake many to their core before it finishes working itself out, because as a community they failed to love their neighbors as themselves. Powerful words, to be sure. And I commend his entire sermon to your reading. They are words which we can take to heart when confronting any evil. How do such terrible things happen? More often than not people, and even His disciples fail Him. The whole mess, as with much in life, points us all to our need for a Savior. PSU was a "clean" program, JoePa was one of the "good guys," and this occurred. . . . Perhaps, with that change in perspective, you and I can begin to change the discussions of blame and loss into discussions of discipleship and of true, godly love. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can begin to get people to see their own need of mercy and God’s grace, just as all those impacted by this scandal at Penn State are also in need of that same grace, that same mercy, that same hope.