Patriarchies and the Powerless

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


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jim dick
6 years 6 months ago
Basically, I agree with this. But we - the people of God, the laity - must keep the feet of the Patriarchy to the fire. We must insist on accountability and prosecution of enablers as well as offenders.
Also, and saddest of all for us as Christians; Where is the prelate who says "it is true? I have sinned. I am guilty and submits to justice in the name of Christ and for the love of Jesus?
6 years 6 months ago
Your analysis is right on the mark on a very human level. It is however, at least for many Catholics, so distressing to learn that the institution-the hierarchy, at the very least some of them, did not speak out and bear witness to all that they profess and are so ready to tell others how to behave. What hypocrites! The welfare of even one solitary child is worth more than the reputation of the institution. It is clear that we need another sweeping Reformation to rid His Church of the rot presently ensconed in the hierarchy. Do any them take seriously that they are commissioned to serve His people, rather than be served?
Marie Rehbein
6 years 6 months ago
 It's so much easier to defy the patriarch once he is dead. 
david power
6 years 6 months ago
Although there are many valid points in the article I think it is a little reductive to just use patriarchy as the catch-all for this crisis.
There was that in both institutions but the root cause I think is deeper.
In the Church you had and have rampant clericalism.
Also in the case of Joe Paterno and Wojtyla you had men whose power corrupted them and that is a human trait that goes back a lot further than Lord Acton's famous words.
Institutionalism is another that is not linked directly to maleness .
It is clear that the bishops and cardinals and Popes were more intent on keeping the false image up than in following truth but that would be probably true of any organization,the only bulwark to this is the individual.
Penn State may now take down the statue of Paterno as an act of repentance.The Vatican would only give you  a belly laugh at the idea of doing the same for their Father Paterno.
There is also the case of idolatry in both cases.Sports and  religion are prone to demagogues.Religion and Sport both eleicit great emotions  that can turn our eyes from reality. The words of Paterno's family were disgusting.They could have been written by Rome in their selfserving nature.Football will survive and so will the Catholic Church but the victims are a reminder that what is above all is God and conscience.Newman's thoughts on conscience need to be sown into the cathechism.  
David Pasinski
6 years 6 months ago
What a fine analysis! I think it could be improved only by emphasizing more intensely how the ecclesiastical patriarchy places "God's will" as its core element. Some really believe that teh bishop yet is an expression of "God's will" (with whatever and all that that means!) for a diocese and that therefore to oppose him is denying the Holy Spirit at work. This undergirding for anything to do with the quasi-divinely revealed patriarchy continues to put the Church in a sphere of its own. and makes any opposition even more dangerous for one's salvation.
Brendan McGrath
6 years 6 months ago
I think much of this reflection is very true, but I feel like it can't be entirely accurate.  For example, consider this line:

''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.''

Is there really a sharp line between ''inside'' and ''outside'' the patriarchy?  For example, suppose it were one of the football players who was sexually abused, raped, etc., or one of the assistant coaches, etc., i.e., people within the patriarchy.  Would that change things, since they're inside the patriarchy?  Would the abuser be reported, then?  Same thing with the Church: if the person abused/raped were a priest, or a seminarian, or even a bishop, or anyone ''in'' the patriarchy, would the abuser really be reported?  In other words, I'm not sure that the response would really be different if the victim were inside the patriarchy, vs. outside.  And also, given that the victims were boys, wouldn't they kind of technically be in the patriarchy, both in the case of the Penn State, and also in the Church (I mean, in those cases where the victims were boys)?

Also, I wonder if the pattern of cover-up, etc. would be the same if the crime/sin/etc. were something other than sex abuse, or something unrelated to sex.  Suppose there was a priest who was a kleptomaniac, or a murderer (God forbid), or an arsonist, etc. - same thing with Sandusky, suppose he'd been one of those things instead.  Would there have been such a concern over scandal and shame?  I mean, I could be wrong, but my sense of things is that the Church and universities haven't really covered up crimes of that nature, at least not in the same systemic pattern or to the same degree.  Doesn't the fact that it's sex-related factor into this somehow?

Tim O'Leary
6 years 6 months ago
I think patriarchy is too narrow a term, since institutions across the board exhibit this form of excessive, inordinate and unjust group protection, as evidenced by what is going on in the California Teacher's Union fight to prevent the removal of abusing teachers, even when there is photographic proof (see LA story on Mark Berndt and SB1530 or here - amazing chutzpah, even for a union.

Nicholas Cafardi also did a little protection of his own, by excluding from this article the recent case in the Jesuit order that implicated Fr. Bradley Schaeffer and Georgetown University. See the April 15 Boston Globe article titled “For the Jesuits, a long road to accountability,” And I haven’t seen anything in America about the more recent accusation against liberal favorite Fr. Drinan SJ, in Emily Yoffe’s “My Molestors” in Slate June 21.
Thomas Farrell
6 years 6 months ago
If we were to go along with Nicholas P. Cafardi's sweeping way of indicting patriarchies, then we probably should consider all male persons to be suspect, including Nicholas P. Cafardi. Alas, human males are not born virtuous, as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle understood centuries ago.


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