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. Mary

    Had a woman been in this chain of command, would there have been more compassion for the child victims? I imagine it must have been difficult for these men to discuss the possibility of one of their peers raping boys in the showers. Egos on the grandest scale.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • wow, it's blood

      agreed, imagine the difference if it weren't an all boys club at the vatican.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  2. Observer

    "TC: With that logic we should get rid of all sports at all universities."

    Yes, why don't we try that and put more focus on actual education; perhaps then we will be among the top nations in what matters – education. We rank in the lowest quartile among the industrialized nations when it comes to math and science and even in basc general knowledge among our students. It is time we get our heads out of the sand and start reflecting on the future and where we need to go as a nation when it comes to education. With this incident, we have reached the nadir to say the least, as to how we go about giving importance to sports in general and football/basketball in particular.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  3. total nonsense

    This has nothing to do with menkind biguest lie: RELIGION.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  4. Francisco d'Anconia

    A. The report was the result of an "independent investigation" funded by the Board of Trustees, who set the scope and "reviewed" information throughout the investigation. I'm sure the investigation was completely unbiased and left no stone unturned, especially stones under which the BoTs have crawled. (extreme sarcasm)

    B. When looking for "cults" of tolerance for pedophiles, one need look no farther than the Catholic church.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  5. Gwen

    Power corrupts. I don't care if it's the Vatican, Penn St., the CEO of a global corporation, the head coach of any college or H.S. program in the world, or any parent of a gift athlete on his or her way up. POWER CORRUPTS. And no, I don't know the answer. But tear the friggin statue down. For starters.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  6. enact RICO laws against the catholic church, please read

    Penn State and the catholic church. Seems Penn State will pay. However why isn't the catholic church held for crimes against humanity? In fact in states as New York, the catholic bishops lobby to stop laws that would expose pedos and the cover ups. And politicians support the bishops for the promise of catholic votes. (please don't tell me the catholic church doesn't hold your vote, they hold your vote in their negotiations without your consent)

    It is a well known fact, that in 1962, the vatican issued a do-cu-ment which had the word 'Secret' written all over it. In fact they were so worried someone would find this do-cu-ment, they instructed the bishops to hide it. This do-cu-ment was written in a mob style which also included the use of threats, to anyone who exposed the abuse of children. Threats to children as well.

    In 2002, the vatican played another mob style game stating the cover ups of child abuse were not the intent of the 1962 do-cu-ment. (They even stated that very few bishops were given the do-cu-ment.) Then, in 2002 a letter was found with instructions from the vatican, it was dated 2001 and written by the current pope, when he was a cardinal, This letter was sent to all the catholic bishops and demanding they adhere to the 1962 doc-ument (proof they all received it, vatican lied about that.) In this letter, it also stated to make sure no victim is found out until 10 years past the victim reaching adulthood (adulthood, meaning 18 years of age). Why? Because now statutes of limitations protects the church since most statutes expire when the victim reaches less than ten years of age past adulthood. The church is now protected, the pedos protected and the victims denied. No priest was ever stripped of the priesthood, back then, as long as the secrets were kept. Oddly, priests were kicked out when they stole money though. Amazing, you'd think the vatican would forgive the theif and expose the pedo.

    No other organization has orchestrated a cover up of child abuse as this organization has. And how often do we have criminals who actually lobby to stop laws that would expose the truth about their crimes? This was a clear act of the obstruction of justice, and it's discovery should have suspended statutes giving victims and their families a chance to legal action. And more importantly to prevent the so-do-my of other children. However the catholic judges refused to act accordingly and within law. (The reason it takes many victims so much time to come forward is due to the illness caused by the abuse. In fact the most violent acts of childhood s-od-o-m-y will traumatize the victim for 10, 20 and more years past the age of 18. This enables the worst pedos freedom)

    Many victims of abuse become mentally ill due to the abuses and others committed suicide. And the catholic church, with it's actions to stop laws, now cause harm to all children abused and their families, no matter who abused.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • demetri

      Stay away from the conspiracy drinks!

      July 15, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • enact RICO laws against the catholic church, please read

      more so, sandusky was one man and we caught him. As far as we know, no other Penn State employees passed around the children. It is a well known fact that catholic priests not only passed their victims on to other pedo priests, but engaged in gang so-do-my of children in some cases.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • enact RICO laws against the catholic church, please read

      sorry, demeti.. These are facts. Well known facts. More so, a former cannon lawyer for the catholic church exposed the do-cu-ments. Another priest who also left the church admitted he contributed to the vaticans cover ups.

      Forget conspiracy, instead replace it with the words liars and deceivers.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      provide references, and docs, or it's all bs

      July 15, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Any dummy that doesn't know the difference between "canon" and "cannon" has no business attempting to comment on either.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • wow, it's blood

      a typo?? No problem. As usual, I expect priests to be behind some of these handles to deflect others. One priests actually stood up for the church using a 'CatholicMom' handle. Sort of shows their level of deceit or is it worry that laws would pass and they would get caught.

      Many people know the docu ment called 'Crimes of Solicitation' found here -> http://www.standard. co.uk/news/pope-led-coverup-of-child-abuse-by-priests-7220621.html The catholic church tries very hard to deny it. The problem is that its contents were revealed by Ratzinger's letter in 2001 which can be found here -> http://www.guardian. co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/13/pope-prosecution-dawkins

      July 15, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • the truth is always exposed in the end

      If anyone wants to have fun, search the internet for other references to these key docuuuments proving the cover ups and also look at the catholic ones failing to refute it. I promise you, it will be fun reading their silly twists. In the end, children lives were destroyed and the Vatican escapes.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • They get away with it

      Shocking was in Catholic Cardinal Dolan who nearly compared children victims as prot itutes.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Thank you for the references.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Justice

      There is an organization that has been working hard to expose the truth, called SnapNetwork. org Another organization which has volumes of information on this is BishopAccountability. org That organization was put together with the help of several priest who left left the Vatican because the cover ups. They told the pope that his actions to protect the Catholic Churches reputation first are wrong and destructive. It also exposes the Catholic Bishops ability to control our lawmakers with countless articles. How awful is that, the Vatican controlling our laws and politicians?

      July 15, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Justice

      Talk about funny. The Catholic Bishops attempted to fool everyone with a study performed by John Jay College. They even presented politicians with the study. The study was to show the lower than usual volumes of pedophilia among priests. In the end, it was found out that the bishops paid for the study and set the rules. One of the rules was that data was to be gotten from the bishops themselves! What a joke as, it has since been found out, many bishops were child abusers themselves and all bishops were to adhere to the Vaticans demand of cover up. Today, John Jay claims the research as grossly in error.

      What people forget is that bishops were once priests too, the pope as well. It's well recorded – far higher percentage of pedophiles among priests than any other profession. The Catholic Bishops deny all victims of abuse with their lobby efforts. Much worse is the cover ups continue and children victims and their families denied. Yet the truth is the greatest healer. I suppose the Catholic Church doesn't like honesty very much.

      July 15, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  7. RicoClement

    I have always failed to understand how a bunch of morons running around with a football and knocking each other around has anything to do with higher education. (Quoted from JackAlias)

    July 15, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Robert

      Football is just a game, nothing more. Its not like they have to think about playing.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • TC

      Lots of these morons you're referring to go on to become presidents, astronauts, doctors, scholars, judges and other leaders in sociiety.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • erik

      And you're saying that playing the game of football prepared them for these occupations? All football does is allow individuals with a hero complex to pander to their delusion. Stop spending hours, and hours, and hours perfecting some stupid game and spend the time doing something meaningful, like charity work.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • EZdiditagain

      You always got picked last as a kid, didn't you?

      July 15, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Mac

      Sports teach self discipline, working as a team, leadership skills, athletic abilities, individual confidence, and rewards of hard work.

      July 15, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  8. MissyW

    I think Laconte has made some good points. No one begins their involvement or career in anything determined to abandon their moral compass. Its human nature that after you become a part of anything that has an "inner ring" that fosters a culture of reverance that you are compelled to do things you may not have done before. Good or bad. This is true of any sport, school, business, church, club, anything! What you do and say is controlled by your unconcious desire to belong. This lessens any struggle between your morality and your loyalty. You hardly notice it. So, If your spirit isn't stronger than your mind it won't allow you to realize when what you thought to be good has actually become bad. It is about your spirituality. Jesus was spiritual, man is religious. Read only His words.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • JWT

      Being spiritiual does not generate morality. Not being spiritual does not generate immorality,.

      July 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  9. Nonsense

    Doesn't the author know about the much larger child abuse scandal committed by "men of god". I agree that football has religion like elements, so why would religion be the cure?

    July 15, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • W Sayeth

      Excellent point. Religion has justified and continues to justify all sorts of behavior from the beastly to the sublime (although it appears to motivate by means of extortion). It cannot be counted on to prevent this type of behavior.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  10. Steve Billiter

    Children deserve to be fully protected by not only every single mature adult, but also by older children and teenagers to the best of their ability. Those janitors are guilty by association because they did nothing to blow the whistle alerting the police to these base crimes. What is a lowly dime-a-dozen job like that (or any job) compared to the lives of children? The Greek word here that the author used in his Bible translation is:skandalizō. the KJV translates the verse as "offend."
    Mat 18:6 But whoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
    σκανδαλίζω skandalizō skan-dal-id'-zo
    To “scandalize”; from G4625; to entrap, that is, trip up (figuratively stumble [transitively] or entice to sin, apostasy or displeasure): – (make to) offend.

    Organized sports at the college level contains many more evils than just an occasional child predator. These events are violent, alcohol fueled activities that end up creating alcoholics out of many of the students–and very serious head injuries for players that just now recently is beginning to surface.

    "Some died of dementia. Some died of unrelated causes. Some were old. Some were young. Most were linemen or linebackers, although there was one wide receiver. In one case, a man who had been a linebacker for sixteen years, you could see, without the aid of magnification, that there was trouble: there was a shiny tan layer of scar tissue, right on the surface of the frontal lobe, where the brain had repeatedly slammed into the skull" (Gladwell, 2009).
    (Gladwell, Malcolm, (2009) Offensive Play; The New Yorker. The Annals of Medicine).

    July 15, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Mac

      Written by an obvious nerd

      July 15, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  11. PraiseTheLard

    And yet... I'm pretty sure that most of the "players" in this tragedy went to church on a regular basis...

    July 15, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  12. R housden

    Penn. State should not be allowed to play any type of sports for the rest of this century.
    The corruption started at the top with the cover up years ago. There are many more fish in this scandal than Sandusky and paterno.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • TC

      With that logic we should get rid of all sports at all universities.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  13. Mike

    So now we've progressed to blaming fans. Man, what's next? Blame parents for allowing their kids to revere sports figures? Blame society for propping up football? Blame america for allowing this? Seriously, people like this idiot make me sick.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  14. Susan

    You know, I am no fan of Christianity, but most of the comments here show that he hit a nerve with a lot of you. I thought it was an interesting comparison to a work of fiction that attempts to explain why people do such morally reprehensible things, like looking the other way when children are being hurt, when they normally would object. Just a different, and interesting, perspective. Settle down!

    July 15, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Ralph

      "looking the other way when children are being hurt"

      It's not just this case in our society it's called bullying, hazing, etc..., and yes many (millions) look the other way. Until we have a complete culture shift it will continue to be a problem, but humans are lazy and won't make the effort to stop it.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  15. gabe

    The author is a complete moron plain and simple.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Nonsense

      what nonsense. Doesn't

      July 15, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Robert

      Great article!! Loconte hit it dead on!!!

      July 15, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • douglas

      Ok Gabe...so how would you describe how these guys let this continue to happen to these kids?

      July 15, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • TC

      Then Loconte is as morally guilty as the rest.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  16. Agreed

    its difficult to believe that out of all these "Men", not one of them determined that what they were doing was too wrong. If just one of them would have said; enough, at least some of this could have been prevented.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • TC

      Don't forget that the PA state attorney general office had all this testimony in 1998. The legal system failed worse than the university.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  17. Hypatia

    What a load of pompous, self-righteous drivel, as can only be expressed by a brainwashed member of a sad, pitiful cult called 'xianity'.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Susan

      Lol I thought you were using a word I wasn't familiar with, I even said "zi-anity" in my mind. But then I realized you are just being a jerk. How bitter you are, whoa!

      July 15, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • LouAZ

      There are about 1.196 billion (Wiki) shareholders of the Worldwide Catholic Corporation.
      Bernie Madoff was an insignificant rank amature.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • LouAZ

      Susan – Your "comment" indicates there are lots of things your not familiar with including honest introspection. You just kepp drinkin' the "Holy Water ".

      July 15, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Robert

      LouAs, your an idiot.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  18. Brian Hartman

    I think the concluding quotation from the Bible isn't apropos. Sandusky (or the administration who looked the other way) didn't cause the children to fall into sin. The children never sinned (in this situation, at least). It's Sandusky and the administration who sinned against them.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  19. Andrew

    It is insulting to suggest that only the God worshipped by Christians can serve as a means for improving the culture at Penn State. Even for those who accept that secular solutions are inherently less effective or valuable than religious ones, the claim here is that a Muslim, a Jew, a Sikh, a Zoroastrian, or a member of any other religious group is inherently less capable of of moral behavior or healing.

    Dr. Laconte, you bring shame to my faith by your failures in logic (yes, you employ fallacies as well as a politician on the stump) and your heartless diminution of all who do not share your (I refuse to say "our," as clearly we differ in our approaches) beliefs.

    I understand this is a blog, but to call it the "CNN Belief Blog" while using words to urinate on the beliefs of others does a disservice to the word "belief."

    July 15, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  20. erik

    It's interesting that the article vehemently condemns Penn State officials for turning a blind eye and yet proclaims the "God of the Bible ... as the great defender of sociiety's weakest and most vulnerable". How is the God of the Bible different from Joe Paterno or the other officials? Didn't He allow the children to be abused just the same as Paterno? How did He defend the children? When did he stop the sick charade? After 20 years and dozens of lives destroyed? Please, try to justify it, because I just don't get it. If God does not act, how is He relevent?

    July 15, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • TC

      Please be reminded that the Freeh report has lots of opinions and conjecture based conclusions before deciding to condemn Joe Paterno.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Frank

      Christians always give their god credit for everything that is good and lets him off the hook for all bad things. There's no other way to maintain their delusion. I remember one story of a young altar boy as he was being raped and sodomized by the priest in the priest's private quarters. There was crucifix haning on the wall with Jesus there looking down on the rape in progress. The boy, loooking up at the crucifix, asked why he is allowing this. This whole deslusional belief system is repulsive.

      July 15, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Because "he" never existed... he's as much a work of fiction as the characters in C.S. Lewis' work...

      July 15, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Robert

      Quit the contrary TC, is is completely factual based. YOu need to read the entire thing, instead of making opinions...

      July 15, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Mac

      Check out the Bible: God gave us free will.

      July 15, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Mac

      Frank : get it right ! Man is evil, God is Good and he gave man free will which is clearly illustrated by your comment.

      July 15, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
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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.