Fifteen years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a peace-and-justice mission hosted by the Catholic Church. Several artists, musicians and I, a choreographer, were invited to a remote outpost on a Caribbean island to teach the indigenous population music and dance.
I was housed, along with the island’s half-dozen priests, in a stunningly beautiful air-conditioned villa equipped with a swimming pool, view, cook and maid; hardly my idea of how one would live who had taken a vow of poverty. This lifestyle was in stark contrast with the circumstances of the people I was teaching, most of whom lived in ramshackle dwellings with no indoor plumbing.
At dinner one night, I was informed that one priest was absent. It was insinuated with a few obtuse remarks and knowing glances that the missing priest was staying in the church with a “native” boy. The age of the boy was not specified. To the middle-aged priests, “a boy” could have meant anyone under 30. Also, I thought, the term “boy” might have racist connotations, since black men were historically considered by racists to be called boys for most of their adult lives. I was already uncomfortable with the inequities between the priests and the people. I knew that it was not my place to comment, ask questions and especially not my place, as a guest, to criticize.
Nevertheless, I mustered up the audacity to ask, “Don’t you think that someone should get in the jeep, go down to the church and make sure nothing bad is happening?” My question solicited no reaction, just uncomfortable silence. I was a visitor in a foreign country. I had no proof that a child was involved. Also, and probably primarily, I did not want to believe that a priest could take sexual advantage of a child. Shortly after returning from the peace-and-justice mission, all the scandals involving sex between priests and children became national and international news.
Religious institutions, schools, prisons and community groups are comprised of people. People are flawed. In any given organization there are saints and sinners. The majority of people I met through the Catholic Church were inspiring, dedicated and morally impeccable.
How much accountability is enough accountability
Once a person sees or hears of an alleged crime taking place, they become obligated to take action. The dictionary defines accountability as: “The state of being accountable, liable and answerable.” Did my decision to take no further action, then asking my question make me liable for what may have been happening between the priest and the “boy”?
Joe Paterno’s sudden dismissal, which ended his brilliant 45-year career as Penn State’s head football coach, brings up my question to myself and other questions about responsibility, accountability, self-interest and erroneous myths we buy into about hierarchical institutions such as churches and universities
It is clear what should have happened and didn’t. A graduate student was an eyewitness to the crime of sodomy between a grown man, assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and a ten-year-old boy. Instead of going immediately to the police as he should have, he went to his father for advice. His father advised him to report it to Joe Paterno, who subsequently reported it to his superiors. The problem with this method of responsibility taking is the notion that passing on accountability to one’s boss, in the hopes that one’s superior is actually superior, will solve the problem.
What advice might the father of the graduate student give his son? “You will have to testify against your coach in open court. Your career in Penn State sports will be ruined. You may be accused of lying; you will be considered a whistle-blower and blacklisted from sports.” What if you are wrong about the severity of what you “think” you saw?
Whatever the father said, the result was a game of moral hot-potato. Reporting anyone, especially a close friend (Paterno and Sandusky were close friends), to the police often results in ruined lives. No one wants to ruin the life of a friend, especially one who you would not have believed was capable of hurting a child. Sandusky and his wife Dorothy were all about saving children, not hurting them. They adopted into their family six at-risk children and helped hundreds of others through Sandusky’s charity, The Second Mile. Matt Sandusky, the youngest adopted son of Jerry and Dorothy Sandusky, claims that the Sandusky’s saved his life; that their family was nurturing and loving. He is vehemently supporting his adoptive father during the crisis.
After the first reported instance of sexual misconduct in 1998, Sandusky survived investigations into allegations that he abused an eleven-year-old boy in a locker room shower. After the boy’s mother reported it, the campus police investigated. Two detectives heard Sandusky admit some of the allegations to the boy’s mother, telling her, “I wish I were dead.”
I understand why he wished he were dead. What would it be like if the only way to satisfy your sexuality was to commit a crime against an innocent child? Maybe the heroic thing for him to have done would have been to end his own life.
Much as pedophiles are portrayed as Machiavellian and evil, often their twisted behavior is a result of a perverse kind of love for children within their own demented thinking. It is not unusual for them to have helped many more children than they hurt.
Bruce Ritter was an immensely popular and loved, soft-spoken Roman Catholic priest who founded the world-famous Covenant House in 1972, a place of respite for homeless teenagers. He was forced to resign in 1990 after shocking accusations that he had engaged in sexual relations with several youths in the care of the facility.
The overriding question in the press is why Paterno didn’t notify law enforcement of the 2002 shower-room incident. It is widely reported that his motivations were self-serving and ugly. Was he protecting his saintly image as “Joe PA” and the institution of Penn State football. Although many claim to know, we can never know. Was he blinded by a 30-year friendship with Sandusky and unable to believe he could do such a thing? Did he trust his superior’s sense of moral rightness? When you have reported a crime to someone that you consider to be an authority figure with more responsibility than your own, is it your task to check-up and see if the right action was taken?
Although no charges have been brought against Paterno, in the end he was fired. In the last moment of his long career, he was given a standing ovation by the football team. Should he have been fired? Probably, yes. He neglected to inform the proper authority about a crime resulting in many more crimes being committed. The irony is that he mentored many athletes. He cared about young people and his firing has hurt a lot of young people instead of helping them.