I’ve been away from the computer most of this week, but trying to follow the unfolding mess at Penn State via cable and radio. I grew up in a college town, I’ve been a campus pastor, and I’ve been an academic administrator. I’ve seen coverups great and small, and I’ve seen coverups blown apart by courageous people unwilling to put the reputation of an institution ahead of the rule of law.

No, that’s not right.

I’ve seen courageous people act, knowing that holding people accountable and acting to protect the vulnerable is not detrimental to an institution’s reputation, but enhances it. It says “This is a place where we do not tolerate X, Y, and Z, and we don’t care if the violator is the lowest person on the totem pole or the biggest bigwig around.”

In addition to my campus-based experiences, I’ve also been the pastor brought in to clean up after another pastor was arrested for child sexual abuse. He was ultimately convicted, but the two year legal battles (criminal and civil) took a huge toll on not only the victim and victim’s family, but also every other member of the church and many in the wider community. Their willingness to trust had been blown apart, and whoever has to clean up has to start by rebuilding trust.

From where I sit, the Penn State Board of Trustees is generally going in the right direction. All the media attention has been on Joe Paterno, but I was struck more by the fact that the Trustees canned PSU President Graham Spanier. I don’t know what role he may or may not have had in keeping Sandusky’s actions out of view of the police, but I am virtually certain he kept it out of the view of the Board. I suspect that he didn’t keep them in the loop about the state’s investigation of Sandusky, which Penn State administrators clearly knew about well before last Saturday’s arrests.

From Philly.com:

The 23-page grand jury report was the product of a “multiyear investigation.” Top university officials were questioned under oath about the alleged rape of a young boy on campus by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The state attorney general was running an explosive probe into child-sex-abuse charges that might later be shared with a horrified public.

And yet the very institution whose top officials had been hauled before investigators, a behemoth with a $4.1 billion annual budget and a College of Communications billed as the country’s largest, appeared to have no plan for the public-relations crisis that blew up as the report went public Saturday.

In other words, Pennsylvania State University, mystifyingly and to its great detriment, dropped the ball.

If Spanier didn’t tell his board what was going on, they would have been beyond pissed when it all hit the fan. Add in that Spanier’s initial reaction was taken straight from the RC bishop’s handbook in protecting those who covered things up (shorter Spanier: “We stand behind our AD and VP/Finance unconditionally”), and Spanier was toast in the Board’s eyes.

Bishops may be able to pull that stunt, as they have no Board of Trustees looking over their shoulders. Speaking of bishops . . .

State College is part of the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, and to the east they are tied to the archdiocese of Philadelphia. Philly just got a new archbishop, Charles Chaput, who has come to town in the middle of Philadelphia’s own huge child abuse scandal. As I wrote last July,

Philly is also a ticking time bomb in the [Roman Catholic Church’s ongoing] child abuse scandal, with the pending trial of the now-dismissed assistant to the previous cardinal who handled allegations of abuse, and other church leaders, for hiding allegations of abuse and shuttling around the abusers from parish to parish. Rigali’s predecessor, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, escaped being hauled before a grand jury only because his doctor says he is near death and has bad memory issues. In their report, the grand jury basically said “we took mercy on him and didn’t name him in the indictment, but boy did he screw up here.” Either he knew what his assistant was doing and is culpable for the later abuse, or he didn’t know and should have. The grand jury report [pdf] is devastating, and the trial will be as well.

Reading the grand jury report from Penn State this week reminded me greatly of the Philadelphia grand jury’s report. (It also reminded me of Kansas City’s Bishop Robert Finn, who was indicted last month for failing to report one of his priests. But let’s stick with Philadelphia for the moment.)

The archdiocese of Philadelphia is facing a March 2012 trial for Monsignor William J. Lynn, the priest in question. He was removed from his office in February, but at a banquet to welcome the new archbishop to town last month, Lynn was featured in the festivities:

During the invitation-only dinner for Archbishop Charles J. Chaput at a parish hall in Montgomery County, Chaput singled out Lynn in the crowd and noted how difficult the ordeal has been for him, according to one priest who attended and two people briefed by others at the gala.

Much of the audience, which included hundreds of priests, then stood and applauded, said the sources, who asked not to be identified.

The exchange, in a banquet room at St. Helena’s in Blue Bell, spanned just seconds in a talk by Chaput on changes and his vision for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. But it reflected one of the strongest signals of support for Lynn since his arrest and suspension from ministry in February.

It came as Chaput, who last month took the helm of the 1.5 million-member archdiocese, strives to bond with his new flock and the hundreds of priests who are the face of the church in the region’s towns and parishes.

So let’s review. College students at Penn State riot over holding folks accountable, and in Philly, priests cheer for someone whom prosecutors and a grand jury believe deliberately protected a pedophile from the police with the full knowledge and support of his boss, the Cardinal.

Fortunately for the state of Pennsylvania — and for Pennsylvania’s children — their grand juries do not appear to be staffed with such people.

Campus pastors at Penn State have been trying to help their community come to grips with this mess, and my heart goes out to them. But one in particular is in a real bind: the chaplain of the Roman Catholic campus ministry, Father Matthew Laffey.

He can’t say anything to support the Board of Trustees and those seeking a full investigation led by external people that wouldn’t be a slam on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and their actions in the William Lynn case. But if Father Matthew says things to support Spanier, Paterno, and the other administrators, he comes off as insensitive to the victims at best, and a misguided fool at worst.

To top things off, the Catholic campus ministry is in the midst of a building program. Their current facilities are too small, so they are building a new center for their work: the Suzanne Pohland Paterno Catholic Student Faith Center. Suzanne is Mrs. Joe Paterno, for those scoring at home.

Rock, meet hard place.

My prayers go out to Father Matthew. He’s wrestling with a double dose of how to express institutional loyalty when trust has been broken, and he, like the Board of Trustees, faces a choice. Does loyalty mean opening up a messy can of worms and demanding accountability, or does loyalty mean covering up, making excuses, and keeping silent?

There can be no healing without openness — not for the victims of Sandusky, not for the other victims of other abusers who are part of the Penn State community, not for their families, not for their friends, and not for their community. The can of worms may be messy, and lead to lots of loud and angry conversations. But to borrow a phrase from the LGBT fight for civil rights, silence equals death.

Father Matthew and others like him must choose which path to follow, and only one leads to healing.


photo h/t to Gareth D. Jones.



I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.