The Devil We Know

Nov 08, 2011 | Updated Jan 08, 2012

High priests and little boys. Haven't we seen this movie before? The script is appallingly familiar, laden with the grotesque phrases of grand jury findings about men in positions of trust committing unspeakable acts upon children.

This time, the alleged perpetrator was a preacher of our national religion -- football -- a former defensive coordinator whose degenerate acts allegedly took place in the inner sanctum that the legendary Coach Joe Paterno constructed so carefully for the Nittany Lions at Penn State. Jerry Sandusky was once a beloved disciple of the disciplined Pastor Paterno, making his fall from grace so much more incomprehensible. The storied Happy Valley has become a shameful den of iniquity.

Among Catholics like me who have suffered through too many years of scandalous news about priests preying on children, this latest example illustrates the truth that such depravity is not indigenous to religious life, any more than it is to college football. But that is small comfort in the face of such sickening evil. Far more wrenching is the shock that comes each time we realize anew that child abusers are not shady figures in trench coats lurking behind trees, but rather, trusted men whom the vulnerable innocents came to call "father" or "coach."

What makes the Sandusky case even more worrisome for me as a university president is the specter of the next time -- there will surely be a next time absent clear and unequivocal actions now. My job requires me to confront the urgent questions: Who is the devil we already know? How do we find him before the next heinous crime occurs in some dank locker room or sacristy redolent with the morning incense?

The collateral damage at Penn State -- the indictments against former Athletic Director Timothy Curly and Vice President Gary Schultz -- fires a warning shot through every president's office and board room: Don't think it can't happen here! Doing nothing is a catastrophe. As Pennsylvania State Attorney General Linda Kelly said of the alleged failure of Curly and Schultz to report the original abuse claims to state authorities, "Their inaction likely allowed a child predator to continue to victimize children for many, many years."

Inaction, denial, cover-up. To its sorrow, Penn State now realizes the hard lessons that the Catholic Church is still absorbing. The failure to act immediately to expose and arrest predators is a moral failure that leads only to further destruction of both the victims and the institutions that collude through their silence.

Universities are no longer the aristocratic clubs of yesteryear, the safe harbors where old boys' networks and cherished secret rituals masked shockingly bad behavior, often involving alcohol, hazing, sex and drugs. A vast network of federal, state and local regulation now reaches deeply into institutional life, demanding a public viewing of academic entrails once relegated to musty files in the Dean's Office or Registrar: retention and completion rates, disciplinary proceedings, crime stats, financial aid analyses and Title IX data.

A new raft of regulations issued last year demands immediate and vigilant attention to problems of sexual harassment and bullying on campus. Even the faculty cannot escape the long arm of risk management policies and training sessions; mandatory harassment seminars for personnel are a routine part of the landscape of university life today.

Perhaps Joe Paterno, going on nearly half a century as head coach, missed that memo. Perhaps the athletic director and senior management thought it didn't apply to the football icons. Perhaps Penn State is too big for university leaders to know what's going on in the showers. Perhaps they simply didn't think that anything was wrong with Coach Sandusky's behavior. What were they thinking? We'll surely find out more in the trials to come.

Meanwhile, the rest of us in positions of institutional responsibility will be on the hunt for the devils we know. They are with us; we only have to discover them. Unfortunately, that will mean even more rules, certainly more regulations, more suspicion and more investigations. People will be upset; faculty will claim it's all too intrusive. The clubby college of byegone days is gone, lost in the storm of accusation and denial and legal consequences in no-longer Happy Valley that will sweep across the entire sector of higher education as a result of the Sandusky indictment.

If all of this pain means we can spare one more child the devastation of sexual abuse, it will be worth it.