Like many people, I can barely contain my outrage over the news that keeps coming out of Penn State University. I keep thinking about those boys, now grown, and what it must have been like to know their lives were deemed less worthy than a football program. I keep thinking about all of the people who knew all of the stomach-turning details and did nothing. And when I learned that PSU students rioted to protest the firing of Joe Paterno…
It’s almost too much to bear. I have literally been trembling with rage for days now.
I have a personal stake here as well. Like far too many people, I was sexually abused as a child, and I was denied justice for the sake of protecting an institution. In my case, that institution was a church. I will spare you the details beyond that my situation was heartbreaking and horrifying, and maybe worst of all, not at all unique. The Catholic Church has been plagued with reports of systemic cover-ups of child sex abuse for several years now. Even members of the Occupy movement have exhibited this mentality by accusing sex crime victims of being instigators meant to tear the movement apart.
The common denominator in all of these situations is that people have decided that an institution – essentially, a collection of ideas – is more important than people. The irony is that these institutions often attract such fervent protectors is because those ideas they represent – honor, economic justice, a plan for eternal salvation – appeal to us on such a deep, profound level that we cannot bear to see them attacked, and we will turn on anyone who threatens it, even if that threat is a small, hurt child.
But in doing so, the enemy of the institution is no longer external. The institution is no longer besieged by outsiders. The decay sets in from within.
And what is the message sent to victims? The explicit message is that you don’t count. Your pain does not matter. Your pain may seem so overwhelming it blots out the sun, but to those with power, it is so small, so infinitesimal, that it can be brushed aside without seemingly giving it a second thought. After all, what is your pain compared to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The priesthood? The movement to end economic oppression? Five decades of football glory?
What does it mean that so many of us are willing to turn our heads when it comes to sexual abuse in the name of protecting an institution? What does it mean that we allow rapists to walk in order to protect a collection of ideas?
This is what I don’t think a lot of those would-be guardians of the institutions understand. You aren’t protecting a thing when you let sexual abusers run free. What you are doing is decaying the moral center of your institution. What you are doing is showing that your professed moral values are empty, meaningless.
When you were given the opportunity to live up to those high moral standards, you failed. When you were faced with a true test of your character, you failed. You had a chance, and you failed.
In your attempt to protect the very thing you love, you have done it more damage than any outside scrutiny ever could.