Action Alert!

Penn State sends a message. US bishops, take notice.

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 11, 2011

At Penn State, a month after the revelation of a sex-abuse scandal, four top executives have been ousted. In the American Catholic hierarchy, a decade after the exposure of hundreds of sex-abuse cases, just one bishop has resigned.

So now the American bishops know what it looks like when an institution takes its responsibilities seriously—its responsibility not only to curb abusers, but also to hold accountable those leaders who allowed the abuse to go unchecked.

A university president, a vice-president, an athletic director, and a legendary football coach have been dismissed for doing once what many American bishops did multiple times. The trustees of Penn State have sent out a clear message: The sexual abuse of children is a heinous crime, and those who cover up the abuse share the guilt. The American Catholic bishops have very clearly grasped the first part of that message, and just as clearly failed to come to terms with the second part.

The students who noisily protested the firing of Joe Paterno also failed to grasp the point about holder leaders accountable. They admire Paterno for his coaching prowess, and understandably so. They say that he has made enormous contributions to Penn State, and they are right; there is already a statue of the man on campus. But even great men can do bad things. By failing to take appropriate action against an abuser, Paterno wrote his own sad ending to what should have been a stellar career.

The angry students at Penn State are showing a very natural human tendency. They admire “Joe Pa,” and don’t want to think ill of him. They recognize that he made a major mistake, but don’t think he should be punished for it. Couldn’t we just cut the man some slack?

Perhaps Paterno himself was thinking along similar lines when he first heard the complaints against Jerry Sandusky. Presumably the old coach liked his assistant, and didn’t want to make trouble for him. So he handled the matter quietly—and the abuser went unpunished, and more children were put at risk.

No doubt the same sort of sentimental thinking took place in chanceries all around the country (all around the world, it seems), when Church officials learned that Father X had been accused. “Father X has done wrong, but he’s fundamentally a good man,” the bishops and monsignors might have said. “Let’s help him to work his way out of this problem gracefully.” So the priest was quietly removed from his parish, given a few weeks of therapy, and then returned to a new assignment, where he had new opportunities to molest young people.

We all tend to make excuses for the people closest to us. Apparently that tendency affects even the most vociferous critics of clerical abuse. But even if it is a very natural weakness, it remains a weakness. If we want to eliminate the abuse of children, we must get tough with abusers. Sometimes that might mean fighting off the temptation to make excuses for them—in effect, getting tough with ourselves.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Nov. 14, 2011 5:27 PM ET USA

    The Holy See was correct in not removing negligent bishops. To have done so would have caused chaos in the American Church and provided hostile governments with a perfect weapon against the Church. Just accuse a "troublesome" bishop (e.g., Cardinal Wen)or priest with sex abuse and the Vatican will get rid of him for you. Why not claim that Pope Benedict should go because he knew abuse had happened? It is a stupid request but it would have been made.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 13, 2011 6:47 PM ET USA

    The rationalizations for the responsible bishops not being removed are just that: rationalizations. Evangelization required direct, decisive action to be taken against some bishops. The reliance upon psychiatry was no excuse: especially after the psychiatrist were PROVEN wrong by the results.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 12, 2011 9:16 AM ET USA

    Well done. A sports commentator made some interesting points about popular tendencies to deify men. He intimated that he is always uncomfortable when dads ask him for his autograph in front of their sons. It creeps him out. He finds it to be disordered and disturbing. Bingo. Phil uses the word "accountable". To persist in apotheosizing our popular deities without demanding accountabiity is folly. And with regard to the Catholic hierarchy, trailing late in the game, public opinion has tanked.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 12, 2011 7:47 AM ET USA

    Fine article - as usual, Phil. And now we hear on EWTN an announcement that the American bishops will have their annual meeting beginning November. Don't the bishops realize the contempt we have for them, so for them to sit looking serious and solemn, as if they are wise leaders makes me furious

  • Posted by: - Nov. 12, 2011 4:55 AM ET USA

    Penn State's REAL message: Be perfect, lest we fire you 14 years after the fact for something we didn't care about at the time. This event has everything to do with satisfying a PC lynch mob; a crowd of people who've been shoving promiscuity and license for decades, but who've been adamant about rejecting accountability for their attitudes. Joe Paterno and others have become fall guys for the sins of fools.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Nov. 12, 2011 12:31 AM ET USA

    Yeah, but didn't he continue to allow the perpetrator to operate boys' football camps, thereby putting more boys at risk?

  • Posted by: BobJ70777069 - Nov. 11, 2011 5:58 PM ET USA

    Agreed, but don't you think the over-reliance on psychiatrists' expertise had a lot to do with it?

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 11, 2011 5:36 PM ET USA

    I made a point of reading the Grand Jury report on this incident. Joe Paterno's role in this is very small. He forwarded the information he had to his superior, and attended a meeting which indicated to him that the incident was being investigated. God help me. I also have been an administrator of a busy program, and if someone gave me a report of a crime I had not seen, I might well have done exactly what Joe Pa did. BTW--the students do not merely admire Joe Pa: they love him.