July 15th, 2012
03:00 AM ET
Editor's Note: Joseph Loconte, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and the author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt.
By Joseph Loconte, Special to CNN
(CNN)–The results of the investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, released last week, suggest a crisis of conscience in the academy. The report blames “the most powerful leaders at the university” for concealing vital facts about football coach Jerry Sandusky’s chronic record of child abuse. Singled out are university President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, Vice President Gary Schultz, and head Coach Joe Paterno. “Our most saddening and sobering finding,” the report said, “is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State.”
Last month Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse, including rape and sodomy. If the investigation’s conclusions are correct, he had help. It seems that all these individuals, men of public achievement and outward propriety, conspired together to protect a serial pedophile. How is it possible?
An intense desire to shield the reputation of the school, a jealous regard for its venerable football tradition, a determination to avoid the financial fallout of a sex scandal—these are the usual suspects, and they all played a part in this criminal episode. Yet even taken together they don’t fully explain the alleged conspiracy of silence.
In their 162-page report, investigators said that “a culture of reverence” for the football program contributed to the abuse and its cover-up. This “culture of reverence,” in fact, functioned more like a quasi-religious cult than a college football program. At Penn State—as well as at other competitive football schools—we find the secular equivalent of high priests, holy rituals, secret initiations, unquestioned dogmas and fanatically devoted followers.
And, like any religious cult, there is a sanctified hierarchy: a cadre of elite who stand guard at the temple to protect its power and prestige—and its darkest secrets. They are individuals who, once welcomed into this fellowship, will not break faith with one another.
Christian author C.S. Lewis called this dynamic “the Inner Ring.” Based on his own experience at Oxford and Cambridge universities, Lewis discerned a powerful desire to enter these elite societies, to experience “the delicious sense of secret intimacy.” He described an equally potent fear of being shut out of the inner ring and, once admitted, to close ranks at the first sign of trouble.
In book three of Lewis’s space trilogy, "That Hideous Strength," we watch the moral descent of Mark Studdock, a university professor who comes under the influence of the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Coordinated Experiments). The leaders of the N.I.C.E want to distract attention from their wicked machinations in the town of Edgetow. In an effort to consolidate their stranglehold over the community, they ask Studdock, a writer who craves their approval and acceptance, to fabricate a newspaper story.
“This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew to be criminal. But the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner,” Lewis writes. “For him, it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.”
It now appears that the circle of leadership at Penn State, not unlike the N.I.C.E., was ruthlessly devoted to its vision of glory: a secular mission that took on the righteous urgency of a religious cause. The cult of football, like any other cult, not only produces heroes and saints. It creates hypocrites and charlatans.
None of the men implicated in the scandal at Penn State began his career determined to abandon his most basic moral obligations: to protect children from physical and sexual abuse. And, yet, the report found “a striking lack of empathy for child abuse victims by the most senior leaders of the university.” How could it happen? It probably happened in “a chatter of laughter,” in that dark fellowship that invites decent men to quietly condone the most indecent of acts against their neighbors.
If the report’s findings are true, the inner ring at Penn State manipulated a power structure that made dissent costly. University janitors, who knew what was happening to the children, reportedly kept quiet for fear of reprisals. “They were afraid to take on the football program,” said Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who led the investigation. “If that’s the culture on the bottom, then God help the culture at the top.”
The great tragedy here is that God and his moral law were excluded from the culture at the top. If that culture is to change, it will require more than tough talk and secular therapy. Maybe it’s time to recall that the God of the Bible is portrayed as the great defender of society’s weakest and most vulnerable. Jesus showed a special regard for children—a countercultural quality in his day—and admonished his followers about taking advantage of them.
His stern warning, repeated several times in the gospels, might serve as a moral signpost for coaches everywhere: “It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joseph Loconte.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.