What happens when we value institutions over people?

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.

13 responses to “What happens when we value institutions over people?

  1. Wow–I’d never thought of it in that way before (thinking of it more in terms of *an individual* wishing to protect himself from disrepute), but that’s exactly it. It’s a message about the institution being more important than the sanctity of the individual’s protection from bodily harm. Thank you for saying this so clearly.

    • Yeah, I think the fact that it is an institution is why the cover-up was so deeply entrenched. People are willing to do some really awful things in the name of ideas and institutions, and in fact I would say that most of the worst atrocities I can think of were done for those reasons. Ideas are so powerful, but that power can go either way, you know?

  2. Yes, this times a million.

    And also, I am so sorry for what you had to go through, and for being made to feel like you didn’t matter.

  3. THANK YOU for writing this. I could not agree more. The kids rioting over “one more game” just make me sick. Don’t they get it? That’s like asking for Roman Polansky to get to make “one more movie.” No. What JoPa did (or didn’t do) was wrong. And if people think that he’s being unjustly treated and no one else is taking flak, note that the PRESIDENT of the university, a man who had been in that position for 16 years, was also fired. The Board of Directors seems to understand the gravity of the situation and are acting appropriately, even if the student body doesn’t. A game is never more important than the well being of a child (or in this case, at least 11 of them).

    • Someone pointed out that the huge majority of the crowd was made up of young guys, who – and I hate to say this – are often not the most sensitive when it comes to matters of sexual abuse and sexual assault. I suspect that, ten years down the road, none of those guys will cop to having been at that protest, and in fact they will consider it to be one of the most shameful things they’ve ever done.


    Truthfully, I started reading your blog because we’re both ex-members of the same church, and stayed because you tickled me fuschia with the phrase “suck a bowl of dicks”. But I got so wrapped up in your writing that I forgot about our common background until now.

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