My Take: Penn State’s dark fellowship
Joseph Loconte looks to C.S. Lewis for help understanding the reaction of Joe Paterno, above, and others to Jerry Sandusky.
July 15th, 2012
03:00 AM ET

My Take: Penn State’s dark fellowship

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.

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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.

Sandusky’s pastor addresses conviction from pulpit

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.”

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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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Cults • Sports

soundoff (780 Responses)
  1. Bible just a theory

    This "worship" of Paterno and his football program is just MORE PROOF of how GULLIBLE humans are. Footbal is just a stupid violent GAME that has never contributed one iota to BENEFIT MANKIND. Not a single minute of football over the last 100 years has done a thing to 1) cure cancer or any other disease 2) bring peace to any part of the world 3) achieve a scientific discovery 4) reduce suffering in any part of this planet, etc. etc.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  2. llɐq ʎʞɔnq

    “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.”

    Let me get this straight. So Laconte is saying that the children sinned. Thank you Pope (another) Joe. So now it's at least in part the kids fault.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Howie

      Just tell me how you did the flipped letters thing.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Kelly

      It is never the child's fault. Ever. Dr. Loconte should not have chosen that verse.

      July 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  3. Prester John

    Bobby Bowden must be spinning in his grave knowing Paterno's records will be stripped bare and he will receive the chalice

    July 15, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • romney eats it

      last I checked, Bobby Bowden was still alive. Are you from the future?

      July 15, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Howie

      Damn, you are brilliant.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  4. Sukie

    Just to be clear, not everyone at Penn State subscribes to the football culture. The university employs tens of thousands, some of which have never set foot in Beaver Stadium and care more about the students' academic careers than about their extracurricular activities. Penn State is not solely a football school. As a former student, an alum and a staff member, it's frustrating to be lumped in with fanatical fans and administrators making bad decisions to shield an athletic department's reputation. The occurrences here devastated young lives and negatively impacted an entire local community.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Thanks, Sukie, for a sensible post.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Howie

      I agree with your sentiments, Sukie, but football and Joe Paterno have had no small part in bringing in the money that has been instrumental in the elevation of Penn State's lofty academic status. And that's a lot.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  5. Ed

    Just what we need another self styled expert commenting on something he knows nothing about trying to promote himself.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • cheryl

      You, sir, are an idiot!

      July 15, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Howie

      Agreed, Cheryl.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  6. Buffalo2002

    This is why Penn State needs to get the Death Penalty from the NCAA. They need to send a message that this kind of behavior of cover up will NOT be tolerated.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • romney eats it

      Joe Paterno is dead. Is that not enough of a "death penalty" for you????

      July 15, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  7. Whome

    It's rather unfortunate that all the attention is concentrated on Joe and the football program in all reality the problem is at the top, the administration is fully responsible. Joe as every one of us had to answer to those we work for and you think not try going over your bosses head on an issue and see what happens to you.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • midwest rail

      If you believe Joe Paterno had less influence than these other three mopes, you are sorely mistaken.

      July 15, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  8. olepi

    "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. "

    No Penn State football for 10 years.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Whome

      The words of a fool.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Queth

      A ten year ban seems right to me!

      July 15, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  9. Ron

    Paterno and all of Pedophile State backers are POS!!

    July 15, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • romney eats it

      "Pedophile State," huh? Good grief. If you're going to make a joke, then make it funny, or clever, or original, or at least an abstraction of the real truth. And the truth is that there's only one pedophile. Jerry Sandusky has been tried and convicted, and like his yellow teeth, he will rot in prison for the rest of his life.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • hailmary

      romney-eats-it, you seem lie someone who has a vested interest in PSU's football program, are a staunch defender of the football program's existance and future prosperity. Were you in on the whole "Pedo Circle of Trust"???

      July 15, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  10. Zargoth

    How silly- they needed the fake skygod to fix what was wrong at PSU.

    All they needed was some simple human decency. This is ego & nothing more. Even the janitors knew what was going on!

    PSU needs to be closed permanently.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  11. ConA

    If we cared less about spectator sports and more about academics, this country would be going in a better direction. Wake up America!

    July 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Howie


      July 15, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  12. What's a brony?

    Hey atheists,practice what you preach to others.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      There's a virgin statue with some birdsh1t on it. It needs your attention. Bend over to it, please.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  13. Susan Bland-Medicis

    I found that when I read "the opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joseph Loconte" to be very depressing, it felt like this time CNN might have said and we share them too. Any right minded adult can see that the group think that infected that culture needs to vigorously and publicly combated.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  14. lefty avenger

    People use Faith to justify whatever Evil thing pops up into their head. Sandusky still believes the lord told him to do it.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • alan

      What you, like Sandusky believe, is irrelevant. Sit down, read the Bible and learn something. It will make it so much more pleasant for those who have to be around you.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  15. llɐq ʎʞɔnq

    The original "secret society" was the priests. To equate Penn State with "the academy" is like equating a rock with Mt. Everest. What a joke. Laconte is as stupid as the President of his college, who thinks that christianity, (a delusion), is justified because it has (some) utility. Apparently King's is just Penn State without the football. OMG, where do they get these fools ?

    July 15, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      The origins of morality does rest in gods. When did he go to school ? The 40's ?

      July 15, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • alan

      Funny, but when doing relief work after Katrina and the Alabama tornados, I must have missed the athiest outreach efforts. Seems most everyone there was from some church or religious organization. The athiests were no where to be found but that wouuld be expected since they have so little to offer in the fiirst place.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Prove it. So you were standing around with your clip board, counting who believed what, instead of helping. Good people do good things. One does not need delusions to help.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Howie

      Don't confuse scale with concept. The author isn't comparing the size of Penn State with anything.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  16. Michael

    Time to shut the program down for a while.....GO HEELS!

    July 15, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • jamest297

      Go Buckeyes! Go Trojans (that even sounds weird)! Go ___________________________________ fill in the blank.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  17. daveinla

    Typical of all major college and high school programs. Protect the program first at all cost.

    July 15, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • MHB

      I have to agree, and it's not just major programs. This culture is extending down to even "minor" high schools. The AD at our small high school in VA has stated several times that coaches are hired to do one thing only, WIN. They are not there for the athletes and not to care about them. Since the AD has been in place the sports programs have gone down hill, and the teams aren't even winning, but even more than that its producing atheltes who care onlyabout themselves and most get into trouble once they leave HS. Sports have taken a wrong turn in our society over the past 30 years.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Howie

      Agree, MHB.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What none of these posts acknowledge is that the administration, the coaches, the ADs, etc. are not at the root of the problem. They are simply responding to their shareholders, the public. If not for the alumni and other contributors, the athletic programs wouldn't BE the end-all and be-all. And it starts with kids as young as elementary school. The parents want their kid to be a 'star', to "win". They scream at the coaches and other players, nag the teachers and principals, harass and criticize the schools endlessly if their kid isn't recognized as "the best".

      July 15, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • hailmary

      Tom-tom, you sir have identified the root cause of the problem, our culture is way too obsessed with winning at all costs. It is the average Joe Dad who is to blame, I have personally been called a LOSER by other parents for encouraging my kids to play fair, and focus on academics as much as they can. Sports in this country is completely out of control, the sporting culture has completely obliterated common sense in the whole equation. We really need to learn from Western Europe, which repeatedly emphasizes the concept of a scholar athlete, a BALANCE between academics and sports.

      July 15, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  18. Father of Two

    Exactly...NCAA must levy the death penalty for a moral lapse of this magnitude. Thanks for having the courage to speak out.

    July 15, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  19. jony

    A classic case where protecting their football cash cow became more important than the lives of people...Penn State should completely lose their football program over this to send a message to the other colleges that place footbal over education and everything else

    July 15, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  20. Mauser

    This is one reason I dislike sports in this day and age,
    Somewhere in the last 30-40 years sports lost its respect and those heros you taught your children to look up to as role models,
    Now it is all about the money,prestige,fame and fortune defended at all costs with total
    disregard for even the children,
    There was a time when parents taught there children to look up to athletes and sports
    teams as role models-what happened?
    Sports has become a sickening enterprise.

    July 15, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • rick

      Who is responsible for he money and adulation that sports stars get? Fans

      July 15, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Tracy

      Give it a rest CNN!

      July 15, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • daveinla

      I agree. Massive amounts of $$$$$ and parental ego attempting to attain glory through their children.

      July 15, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • T-Max73

      @Rick- Yet another Christian precept-self abasement and self loathing. I find it insulting that you insist the fans are to blame for abuse of children and not the actual "heros" themselves. By all means-hate yourself all you want. But your self hatred and willingness to accept the wrongdoings of others does not absolve them of their personal responsibility. It is the Christian delusion that removes personal responsibility for "sins" and places them on the shoulders of the unseen and likely non-existent. How convenient!

      July 15, 2012 at 9:30 am |
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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.