Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Of priests and coaches and those who protect them

I'm not a churchy person. Nor was I raised Catholic. So when I say there's no amount of money you could pay me to leave the Grape alone with a priest, the whole statement is academic.

Frankly, I don't trust the church. Of course, there are many good, non-criminal clergymen in the ranks. But to me, their mere participation in a hierarchy that preys upon the most vulnerable members of the flock disqualifies them as fit supervisors for anyone's children. The priesthood in the Catholic church is a fraternity. And allegiance to the frat trumps everything else.

Maureen Dowd described my general feeling about the whole situation in her column today: "it's an insular world that protects its own, that operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully."

Of course, Ms. Dowd was addressing the tragic events at Penn State, and the victories and cash in question there were generated by the school's football program. But Ms. Dowd's statement also describes the church perfectly. As long as the pews are full of souls and the coffers flush, the hierarchy can ignore even the most offensive behavior among their ranks with impunity.

Priest molests a little boy and gets caught? No problem. The bishop can transfer the offender to some one horse town several hours away and pretend nothing happened. The cardinal, when caught lying about the systematic cover up, can flee to Rome and live out his old age in the Vatican.

Until the Penn State news broke, I confess I was blissfully unaware of the similar fraternity that exists among big school sports officials. And frankly, I cannot fathom why anyone who has a child would have even the tiniest shred of sympathy for Joe Paterno over his now ruined "legacy."

I don't believe in hell. But if I'm wrong and it exists, I'm sure they have space for those who fail to intervene when someone abuses a child.

Mr. Paterno was informed that his assistant raped a ten-year-old boy in the showers in Penn State's locker room. He failed to call the authorities. In fact, two days later, Mr. Paterno washed his hands of the whole thing when he reported the incident to the university's athletic director, who also failed to call the authorities.

Mr. Paterno, who for 46 years portrayed himself as a paragon of morality and good conduct, washed his hands of the whole unpleasant matter, thereby proving himself every bit as despicable as Boston's former Cardinal Bernard Law, who oversaw the systematic cover up of hundreds of counts of child abuse before fleeing the country.

You say it's not Mr. Paterno's job? If that was your ten-year-old, and the big boss heard his assistant victimized your kid in such an unspeakable manner, wouldn't you be beyond livid if the supervisor failed to follow up?

The Penn State debacle will no doubt make thousands of parents think twice about leaving their kids with strangers. Which is both a good and a bad thing. I cringe at the notion that all strangers are dangerous. I think it's possible to raise a child who can interact confidently with neighbors and members of the public, but who understands that adults shouldn't want to lure them alone to dark places to do dark deeds.

In fact, many psychologists say that the most confident kids are less likely to become victims. So the idea that we must fear all strangers is counter-productive. On the contrary, I think kids are better served if they're able to speak up for themselves with adults, whether they know those adults well or not.

Which leaves us with the sticky situation of the family priest, soccer coach, scout leader, music teacher, school principal, etc. You know, the people we assume to be moral pillars of the community.

Maybe the most prudent course is to ensure that kids know that anytime the adult leader of some activity seeks to separate one child from the group for "special time," that's a red flag. Anytime an adult wants to have "secrets" or a "special friendship" with a child, that's also a huge red flag. Anytime an adult supervising a group singles out a child for gift giving, the sirens should be wailing along with the huge red flag.

Fortunately, most organizations that work with kids lack the institutionalized fraternity exhibited by Penn State Athletics and the Catholic Church. And maybe some of those frat-type groups that work with kids will finally take notice that perhaps it doesn't pay (at least in the long term) to protect the Jerry Sandusky's among them.

I hope that Mr. Paterno and the university's president, Graham Spanier (with whom the buck should stop), pay for the cover up by losing their jobs.

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