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.

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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)

    If you buy drugs on the street you directly support the violent drug cartels. If you buy sports (Go to stadiums pay T.V.) you support a sick twisted industry that encourages predatory behavior, creates unrealistic role models where grown men are paid millions to play a child's game. Where millions sit and watch rather then get up and do. Unplug the T.V. Go to your kids game. Go outside and play the game yourself. You might even lose some weight and extend your life.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  2. Marcos H. Rivera

    Mr. Joseph Loconte forgot to mention that in any religious cult, there is also the sacrifice of the innocent & the shed of blood. There is blood in the "hollow" halls of Penn State & with it millions of dollars were made & stained. If they keep the statue of Paterno it will forever remind me of the blood shed by the children in those "hollow halls" & they have not learned a thing... and those who think he was a good man are still in the valley of Shadow of Death.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  3. cgs

    Why does the photo show football players? They are not the guilty ones.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  4. LouAZ

    Ha ! Ha ! Ha !
    "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."
    Even the Author Loconte can't bring himself to mutter the words:
    Penn State = Roman Catholic Church
    Paterno = Pope
    Administration = Bishops and Cardinals
    Supporters = Lay Apologists
    Silence = CONSENT
    Go back off in your own jack yard !

    July 15, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  5. butch

    Huge college football fan here. Cut them off, forever.
    If people can forget about the scandal and be okay with the Paterno statue, then they can just as easily forget that Penn state football ever existed. Death penalty for Penn State football.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  6. Cow Manure

    If Penn State or Catholic Church were corporations, they would become bankrupt and extinct. Look at Enron, MCI, Arthur Andersen. One slip, and you are gone. Our society lacks the legal means for eliminating criminal harboring organizations like Penn State and the Catholic Church.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  7. ashleyinnc

    I think this is an accurate analogy for sure. I think the price was revealed yesterday for Paterno's silence. I think we have a lot of work to do to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  8. JR

    Paterno Paterno Paterno. The Freeh report provides enough evidence that Paterno participated in the cover-up. Guilty. However, the report shows that Spanier, Curley and Shultz planned, devised and deliberately went out of their way to make sure it never saw the light of day. Just because Paterno was the famous football coach, apparently what the other three did is unimportant as far as the media is concerned. How about concentrating on punishing the *more* guilty living persons?

    July 15, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  9. PsiCop

    Re: "The great tragedy here is that God and his moral law were excluded from the culture at the top."

    What a laughably idiotic statement. Everything that happened at Penn State closely resembles what numerous investigations have revealed happened in Roman Catholic dioceses around the world, for many decades at the very least. Supposedly, "God and his moral law" were included in those "culture[s] at the top."

    But the facts and the historical record are very clear: The R.C. clergy & hierarchy's reverence for "God and his moral law" did NOT, in any way, coerce them to take "the high road" in dealing with child abuse in their ranks. They did more or less what the higher-ups at Penn State did: they looked the other way, they obfuscated, they downplayed, they evaded the facts, they lied outright.

    It's time for religious people to get over this idea they have that religiosity makes everyone behave better. That notion, while it may comfort them to hold onto it, is a complete fiction. It's time for believers to grow up and get over it already. Enough is enough.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Bob

      Well said PsiCop.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  10. Name*Michael

    LOOK ...it HAS happened at Penn St. property where Jerry Pervert did it ...I don't care if it's football or not ...they MUST taking down Joe "didn't know " Pa statue down ...no wonder those called him "Joe Pa" ...cuz he's PA THOSE"cover ups" ...no wonder those campus called "Happy Valley" ...best place for Pedophiles, Child Molesters roaming there ..what a sick !

    July 15, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  11. fastball

    It happened for the same reason lots of things like this happen.
    Why did no one say to Michael Jackson that maybe sleeping with the kids wouldn't go over so good?
    Why did no one say to any number of famous individuals that maybe...just maybe.. they could clean up their act so they wouldn't mess up their lives/go to jail/die?
    Simple....money and power. No one wants to rock the boat and jeopardize their place on the gravy train. I'm paraphrasing Mark Twain – the most silent man in the world is a man whose livelihood depends on him staying silent.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  12. SaWer MD

    Enough of the Penn State stuff. 99.999% of the people there are great people. Not everyone at Virginia Tech is a murderer because of the gunman. Same for Univer of Texas and the tower shooter. Let it go.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Cow Manure

      Should we let go of the Nazi Era Germany too? I am sure that 99.99% of the people were probably OK there too, until that 0.0000001% maniac showed up.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Bob

      There was no ongoing cover up of ongoing crimes at either Texas or Va. Tech. That's just a completely idiotic basis for comparison.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  13. The Dancer

    I find it very interesting that even this scholar avoids the topic of Paterno's Roman Catholicism as a contributing factor to his negligence. Belonging to a religion that for centuries has condoned, coveruped and conciliated its own pedophile priestly caste goes a long way to explaining why this supposedly fatherly Joe Pa could so blithely turn a Nelson's eye to Sandusky's serial crimes. Taught on a subliminal to accept holy authority as trumping juvenile safety, Paterno carried this same pontifical arrogance into his own sacred and hallowed turf, making the moniker "Pope Jope" a more appropriate.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Cow Manure

      Well spoken, Dancer. Penn State and Catholic Church are not very different in this regards. They both harbored criminals to protect their brand. They should both be punished severely.

      July 15, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  14. Cow Manure

    First allegations of abuse were brought in 1998. It took 13 years to find the criminal. Penn State harbored the criminal for 13 years. Penn State should be suspended from playing football for 13 years. IMHO, fair and square.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  15. alphabatt1

    I take issue with morality only being synonymous with religion.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  16. elcorrat

    Is it not just a bit ironic that a man of faith argues for re-insertion of God at the university when the Catholic church condoned pedaphelia for decades if not centuries?

    July 15, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • phantomdriver

      The writer isn't speaking for the Roman Catholic Church. Sorry, I don't see the irony. If the writer were speaking for the RC's then yes, I would have found it ironic.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  17. J. A., MD

    An accurate analogy to use, until the last point. The little ones did not fall into sin, they were victimized by lure, then intimidation and attack, then intimidation and false shame. God's compassion is theirs.
    On another point, I wonder if Sandusky was himself victimized as a child.
    Do unto others, do unto your community, as you would have them unto you.
    Who will hear and obey the Lord's voice and stand in the gap?

    July 15, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  18. mojobutta

    They were corrupt. Simple as that. Now cut the Penn State football program permanently and make them pay! That is the penalty for destroying young lives. We owe them at least that much.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  19. Name*Michael

    nah ...Athiest Rules !! ...cuz they doesn't lie like those Priests, Catholics, Jewish, even Church-going people ...what a waste on religions ...

    July 15, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • What's a brony?

      Atheists do lie all the time on these forums.

      No logic means they lie..

      July 15, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  20. Ed

    I find it hypocritical that all the sports writers are now proposing all these penalties for Penn State. While they obviously didn't create Jerry Sandusky, they did create the monster that is collge and professional sports. They write articles critical of schools or reward schools with favorable press. If your not 12-0, crush your opponents 70-0, or play for the national championship every year there's something wrong with your program. They create controversy where there is none. They write to get readers, get awards, get more money for themselves. They influence who's number one and goes to the big bowl game. They create the stars. Look at how much money is being spent on the Olympics by the news media. Drew Brees just got a 5 year $100 million contract and the sports writer loved it.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Cow Manure

      Blah ... blah ... blah.

      I am now off my soapbox.


      Ed the random thoughts guy

      July 15, 2012 at 9:51 am |
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