The facts of the child sexual abuse scandal in the Penn State football program are laid out very clearly in the Freeh Report. As early as 1998, Penn State officials were aware that Jerry Sandusky had showered with a minor in the football team’s shower room. That incident, which was reported to university police and the DPW, and was looked into by the DA’s office, came to nothing, despite a report from the boy’s psychologist that what Sandusky was doing was “grooming” behavior, typical of pedophiles. Sandusky was told by university officials that he should not shower with youngsters, but nothing was done to monitor this. Sandusky retired in 1999, but was given “emeritus” status, with privileges to maintain an office and use the sports facilities at the university.
In the fall of 2000, a janitor sees Sandusky, again in the team shower room, performing oral sex on a young boy. He tells other janitors who collectively decide not to report it. As the Freeh Report quotes one janitor, “[R]eporting the incident would have been like going against the President of the United States in my eyes.” “I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone.” “He [i.e., the janitor] explained, ‘football runs this university,’ and said the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.”
Then in February, 2001, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant in the football program sees Sandusky, naked and in a position indicative of anal sex with a 10 or 12 year old boy in the football team’s shower room. The young graduate assistant tells his father, who advises him to report this to the head football coach, which the young grad assistant does. The head football coach, who really runs the show, informs his on-paper superior, the university’s athletic director, but does no more than that. He does not think of calling the police or trying to find the identity and the nature of the harm to the young victim. After some internal discussions, a recommendation is made to the university president, by the athletic director, referred to by one unnamed university official in the Freeh Report as Paterno’s “errand boy,” that they should report the incident to the Second Mile Foundation, Sandusky’s employer and should ban Sandusky from using Penn State’s athletic facilities with young people. No police, not even the university’s own police, are called this time. The former coach goes on using his retirement office at the university, and goes on sexually assaulting other young boys, benefitting from the credibility and trustworthiness that his Penn State connections gave him.
The paradigm of patriarchy here is clear, and the word patriarchy is appropriate, since this is an all male hierarchy. Amateur male athletes play the game, aided by male graduate assistants or assistant coaches, who report to the male head coach, who, although he may be midstream in the flow chart, makes all of the major decisions regarding the football program, above even the athletic director and the university president himself. The head coach is the father figure in this patriarchy. He holds it all together with paternal but unquestionable authority. At its upper reaches, this patriarchy is extremely powerful. At its lower reaches, this patriarchy is intensely loyal, hoping one day to mount the ladder that will lead to its own patriarchal power.
When this world is threatened by outsiders, the wagons are circled, lower echelons of the patriarchy are told to trust the decisions of the upper echelon, and the upper level, those who get the largest rewards from the patriarchy in terms of financial remuneration and career achievement, make decisions in secret, not about how to do the right thing, but about how to protect the patriarchy and their own careers within it. The patriarch defends and legitimizes the patriarchy, and is blind to the rights of others outside the patriarchy. The outsider, who in the case of Penn State was a powerless, raped child, means nothing to them. The patriarchy and their interests in it mean everything.
This model darkly mirrors exactly what happened in the Catholic church in the United States during the clerical child sexual abuse crisis in the second half of the twentieth century, and while it does not excuse it, it does help to explain why it happened as it did.
The Catholic church embodies the word patriarchy, and it too succumbed to this system of patriarchal loyalty when confronted with the largest crisis in its recent history. Too many bishops, when they were made aware of a priest’s sexual abuse of a child in the 1970s and 80s, thought of the patriarchy and their own careers first. Higher authorities in Rome were deferred to, even as those authorities dithered over how to handle this crisis. Priest abusers were protected, not punished, for their crimes, and the child victim was basically ignored.
The factual parallels between the church’s child sex abuse crisis and Penn State’s could be drawn out forever. Interestingly, all of the analysis to date has reflected on how very similar the institutional response to credible reports of child sexual abuse was by both of these powerful institutions. But no one has asked the deeper, larger and more important question: why was the response so similar?
What is unique about patriarchies that makes them act this way? Why did they both ignore the powerless child and hide the acts of the abuser? Did the patriarchal nature of Penn State’s football program and the patriarchal nature of the Catholic church predetermine their response to allegations of child sexual abuse in their midst? Of course it did, in both cases.
Patriarchies are the functional equivalent of dictatorships, dressed up as “families,” headed by a father figure who controls all and to whom complete loyalty is owed. In return, the patriarch provides the benefits of advancement and success to those within the patriarchy and protection from those outside. The outside world is made up of “others,” – non-members of the “family,” the team, the hierarchy. Within this patriarchy, the outsider has no rights. In fact, it is the “otherness” of the outsider that helps to give the patriarchy its identity and uniqueness.
Each patriarch picks his "staff" but the real work is done by "players" who, no matter what their individual talents are, have to subsume themselves to the team. Operating with tunnel vision, the patriarchs, whether they be bishops or university football coaches, perceive their world as the only real one and everything else is tangential. The patriarchy acts a bulwark against this larger world to which it is not accountable and which has no business questioning it. Great respect, even from the outside world, is given these patriarchs as though their talents and power in a narrow field, real as they may be, are transferable to other areas where they are not. Within the patriarchy, there is the eternal deference of an almost medieval court.
And then, something occurs to let the larger world into the private world of the patriarchs. Word of what has happened to the powerless victim leaks to the outside world. And the decisions that the patriarchs thought would be secret forever are now open to the larger world’s scrutiny, for investigation and dissection, and, most importantly, to hold the patriarchs responsible for what happened to that powerless victim, who now speaks with the power of truth on his side. Patriarchies have a hard time dealing with external truth-seekers. It is not in their nature to be accountable.
As the larger, real world examines what happened at Penn State, those members of the patriarchy who are left will have to answer in the open light of day for what they decided in the dark. The university’s Senior Vice-President for Finance and Business, Gary Schultz, and Athletic Director, Tim Curley, await trial on criminal charges of failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse against Sandusky to law enforcement and of perjury in their grand jury testimony. Sadly, the head of the patriarchy has died and is unable to be questioned anymore. And the parallel of Coach Paterno dying before the Sandusky trial with Cardinal Bevilacqua dying before the Monsignor Lynn trial is so eerie as to be unbelievable. But inside the Church and at Penn State, the patriarch’s world is broken and exposed, and nothing can ever put it back together again, at least not the way it was.
Nicholas P. Cafardi