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. babs

    Yesterday's news. Get over it and move on.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  2. founders1791

    o.pin.ion – noun
    1. a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.
    LOUIS FREEH'S entire report is a diatribe of "..OPINIONS.." and only "..HIS.." and MEAN NOTHING because it adds NOTHING to the facts.

    FACT: -Louis Freeh- was recommended by the Justice Dept to be CENSURED for HIS mishandling of the Ruby Ridge govt murder of a Citizen.

    FACT: -Louis Freeh- was the idiot who carried out the Branch Davidian Murder of dozens and dozens of men, woman, and children.

    FACT: -Louis Freeh- is the fool that 'failed' to properly manage the arrest of Chinese-American Scientist Wen Ho Lee and held him for 278 days without trial.
    FACT: Joe Paterno, AS VERIFIED IN COURT, did the right thing and reported "the accusation" to his superiors, Curley & Shultz, immediately.

    FACT: Joe Paterno FORCED SANDUSKY OUT of coaching within 6 months of that accusation.


    July 15, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • woodofpine

      I'll bet $100 you didn't read the report...

      July 15, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • J. Mahoney

      FACT: Joe Paterno, like Louis Freeh and all the rest of us, was HUMAN, not a saint. He did a lot of good things, and he made some terrible, terrible mistakes. If you crazy Penn Staters hadn't put him on such a ridiculously high pedestal, worshiping him as somehow more than just a man, he wouldn't have had so far to fall.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • founders1791

      I read it ..very... carefully. In order to read anything that is purported to be true, once 'must be objective'. Louis Freeh HAS NEVER BEEN OBJECTIVE in his entire career in public or private capacity.

      Opinion vs Fact, Law vs Feelings, all of the truth goes out the window. The reality is that the Police knew LONG BEFORE JOEPA ever heard the 'accusation', and 'they' did nothing.

      How is it that the Parents ..let is slide for a decade... before doing anything about it? My parents would have been their worst nightmare if such a claim was even suggested !

      July 15, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • founders1791

      Joe Paterno has 63 YEARS of minting men out of boys that are captains of industry & science to this day and all we ever here is the demand to TEAR HIM DOWN when Joe Paterno DID NOT COMMIT ANY CRIME AT ALL.

      The criminal is Sandusky, and he was convicted. The coverup was by local Police in 1998 and Penn State Board of Directors, who knew ...way more....long before... Joe Paterno.

      This is yet again another attempt BY LIBERALS who have a motive! They hate sports, the money associated with it, and especially the attention it receives, and that is why they will do ..anything to disparage and destroy it. Read the comments right hear in this blog for dozens of examples.

      July 15, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  3. Jeff

    Penn State needs to be dismantled and disbanded. Let it die along with joe paterno, that JOKE.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, come on. A little bit of an overreaction, don't you think?

      July 15, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • babs

      Soken like someone who had the stallion slipped to him and liked it.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Q Daniels

      You're a funny guy Jeff.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  4. Heidi

    Wonderful article. Horrible secrets can easily be hidden when a group of individuals desire to protect each other and their own sins. Maybe some of the men had affairs on their wives, maybe some took money that wasn't theirs, and others abused children. I believe not only were they protecting the elitist football program, they were protecting each other's secrets in the "boys' club". If any told the sins of one, then the others sins might come to light. Just my opinion. I appreciate the verse quoted at the end of the article. So true. Children must be protected at all costs, even with the risk of our own pride and secrets, and ego.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  5. A Mom

    @ Bucky ball/ upside down...you might want to watch who you call "dumb" , and I can see you have things you hide by not allowing space for people to respond to your shallow comment. I pray for you and that your ignorance will be corrected before your life on Earth is over. The author was on target, and not self-serving as you suggest. What are you hiding...?

    July 15, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Huh? "By not allowing space"? What are you on about?

      July 15, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  6. Brett

    So why were there children at a university? Isn't universities for adults?

    July 15, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Have you READ the stories? Geez.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  7. Seyedibar

    Religious nuts can find any excuse to squeeze god into a situation. The crazy $#1# you people believe in!

    July 15, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • woodofpine

      The problem with atheism is that it too requires a vigorous dedifcated application of faith, but in what? The vacillating and vaporous ethics of the moment... of individual's egoistic interpretation of those vascillating beliefs to perception? I can appreciate cynicism of Abrahamic religion, but the dogged denounciation of all broadly health spirituallity seems to be faith in personal frustration.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • J. Mahoney

      You sure use a lot of multi-syllabic words there, woodofpine. They don't make your point any more logical, though. Atheism is about the inverse of faith. It's about reason.

      July 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  8. Robert

    I am amazed by the obvious disconnect by a number of Penn St. Fans and Alum. It is obvious that there exists a lack of empathy for the victims.., the horror of the abuse that took place. Study the facts! After "plan B" was adopted, no one.., NO ONE talked to Sandusky,collected his keys,forbid him from using the facilities etc. They did nothing! Bobby B. is right. When ever anyone looks at that statue .., it will forever remind them of Sandusky. Fact is Paterno ,though deceased, is guilt of an actual class 1 felony.., Does everyone get that??

    July 15, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • babs

      Apparently some of the victims waited until they had been buggered some 50 times before reporting it. Guess they liked the first 49 times and then felt guilty.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  9. BigTenProf

    The article is well written and articulated. And I don't find it fundamentalist at all (those who say that the author is ridiculously religious). The author is simply consistent with what is constantly repeated in all media as American values: good versus evil. In addition, I wish the FBI would conduct investigations in all sport programs of all colleges. They may not find this extreme case of child abuse, but they may find other gems of corruption.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      The last sentence says the children sinned.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  10. Jon

    "The God of the Bible is portrayed as a defender of society's weakest". Seriously? That would be the God that destroyed the whole world (including all the children) in The Flood? Did the children in Sodom and Gomorra deserve to die for their parents' crimes. Oh and what about the time he *targeted* the firstborn children in Egypt? The article was actually pretty good until he made this incredibly silly statement.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Robert

      This is not about God.., morals and religion are mutually exclusive

      July 15, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Ed

      Jon, the same God Who became a man in the person of The LORD Jesus Christ and suffered what would be equal to what it would be like to burn on fire forever . He did this payment for our sins because He did not want you I to suffer that hoorible everlasting fate. The best thing anyone , including you Jon, is to, "... Repent toward God and place your faith and trust toward The LORD Jesus Christ. ( Acts 20:21 )KJB.. Jesus is God incarnate and He loves you and does not want to see you end up in Hell. Please trust in Him before it is too late.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • I'm with you....great article until we hit "the God of the Bible" ???

      Seriously, you should have stuck with C.S. Lewis and gone no further. "Bible"? Which one? Whose? And....as has already been addressed-SERIOUSLY?? God of the OLD testament? NEW testament? Selected bits and bites? Sorry charley, needing to get that little shot in costs you in overall points!

      July 15, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Brett

      We are all sinners. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are saved by God's grace and not by ourselves. We all deserve death because of our sin, we are born into a world of sin. Once we receive God's mercy and grace through repentance and receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we have a personal relationship with Jesus. The Old Testament shows God's justice because of man's sin, that's why God set Jesus to save us from our sin.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Voice of Reason


      Ed, until you can prove there is a god why do you insist that we should even consider what you believe to be true?

      July 15, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      I though your god was loving and forgiving. Obviously she was a grudge holding deity, who changed, after her son died.
      I thought she was "eternal, immutable".

      July 15, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Glenn

      Is your disdain based on your belief these things mentioned actually happened? In which case your complaint is with God not the author. Or is it the two testiments of the bible are not consistent ? In which case your complaint is with Jesus and his love of children' s blameless state and appears to have been the first person of any authority to have taken this stance. I'm sure the author of the article was not trying to stir anyone's self loathing by mentioning religion. He was in fact neatly tying up the comparison of athletic programs to religious cults.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Jon

      Ed, even if you believe that, you're still left with the fact that even Biblical literalists believe most of human history happened *before* Jesus, during which time this loving God treated His creations pretty much the way a budding serial killer treats small animals. NOT a good role model, any way you sugar coat it.

      July 15, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  11. John Con

    The one word I did not see in any of the comments was the one that brought this all on. MONEY. The football program over the last 30 years made enough money to make the town of State College a very nice place to live. The silence was brought on by dollar signs, not "reputation of the school", not "tradition of football", not "scandal of fallout". Money is what corrupts mens souls. Joe Paterno became a corrupt man when he went from being a man who loved the game to a man who had a portfolio.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  12. Moda

    So many arguments on this article and on the topic of sports seem short sighted. Religion and sports do not go hand and hand. Prayers before games and players personal beliefs are as far as it goes. It is an easy and often over done comparison when associating power and influence with God. The fact of the matter is that this power is not God given. Maybe a false idol approach would have made more sense. But there are many instances in our society today that could fall under these pretenses. The media, sports figures, actors and actresses, musicians the list goes on. This scandal is not the focal point, the victims and their families receiving the support in the aftermath of Sandusky's conviction is. Ironically, every post whether negative or in support of Penn State is still contributing to "machine".

    July 15, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  13. jbg757

    Joseph Loconte, writer of this article, is simply a deluded religious fanatic as is shown in the last 2 paragraphs.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Chris

      This article does appear in the "Belief Blog." It is not fair to call him a "religious fanatic" as an insult in a section of this website dedicated to religion.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Voice of Reason


      Yes, it's the belief blog but also tabbed under opinion. Get it?

      July 15, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  14. TED

    "the report found “a striking lack of empathy for child abuse victims by the most senior leaders of the university.” These SENIOR LEADERS are just as guilty as Jerry Sandusky and should be treated the same!

    July 15, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  15. tallcoolbeauty

    What I find so telling about the power of Joe Paterno and the football program both within Penn State and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is how so many PSU supporters continue to vigorously defend Joe Paterno, despite the revelations noted in the Freeh report, yet none of these same outspoken Paterno supporters will come to the defense of Spanier, Curley, or Schultz.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  16. glenview0818

    Don't believe this garbage for one single minute, these are serious human rights violations, and the "football program culture" does not explain any of this. I say birds of a feather flock together! There is no way on earth, if I had seen or heard about those situations that I would have kept my mouth shut. And I refuse to believe that any person that is not a pedophile would ignore these acts on children. The Nazis tried that ploy but it did not work, and anyone that thinks that these monsters preying on children are different needs to think again. The good news is, they will not survive long in prision.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  17. jbg757

    "The great tragedy here is that God and his moral law were excluded from the culture at the top". Joseph Loconte, Ph.D, writer of this article somehow forgets the decades of pedophilic crimes and cover-up by the catholic church. Could he be one of those "hypocrites and charlatans" produced by this religious cult".

    July 15, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Morality in human culture did not come from gods. Evolutionary Psychology knows all about where it came from. Laconte is too dumb to know the details, and occupationally obligated to preach this sermon. No doubt it will show up on his CV.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  18. wabob62

    That school is a rubber stamp for anyone who is in charge, it's their way or the highway I questioned a lot of things when my kid went there. First you get the look like you are a thug, and then they try to give you the PSU koolaide My kid graduated in 1998 right around the time Sandusky was being investigated, Since then I felt they were an overated school that took most of state funding from other schools and deliberatly kept kids in that school longer than 4 years because of the lazy proffessors to busy to teach their classes and use grad students in their place, with limited seats so you have to stey in school take meaninglees coruses to keep your full time status. when students and parents complained to president Spainier that there was to much time spent on core classes that they didnot need, his responce was I think it is mandatory or traditional to take the extra core classes. This overpaid buffon got his due when they fired him and I hope he is indicted for his roll in the cover up, Paterno was still living in the 50's and he came off as a god, he was a phony to me, who only cared about his legacy that is why he did all that charity at PSU to make himself look good and the football program clean and saintly. He would throw a player off the team in the blink of an eye for academics or bad behavor and everybody loved him for it, but he covered up for a monster that destroyed young lives. By protecting his beloved program he instead destroyed it I feel sorry for coach O'Brian who seems like a decent person and I wish him well. Maybe PSU will come out of fanasty world and into the real world and hopefully be better for it. My other two kids graduated from other Pa. schools that I felt were just as good if not better Temple and West Chester

    July 15, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Q Daniels

      Boy, it looks like you could have used more of those core classes like English......

      July 15, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  19. John Pittsburgh

    All sports programs are like this from Junior High on up.

    Jocks get away with anything.

    The Columbine Killers had been abused by jocks and hit back the only way they could.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Bushwa and nonsense, idiocy and dreck.

      July 15, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • sybilquestion

      Please tell me you are kidding with this ridiculous comment. I didn't read anywhere in this article or the hundreds of other articles saying that the Football players were vulgar disgusting pedophiles. Perhaps I missed that article.
      The Columbine kids had mental issues and no coping skills. What they did was sick and no "Psychology 101" is going to justify what they did. I don't care if they were bullied. Shooting up a school and killing students is not a "coping skill."

      July 15, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  20. izandroro

    Penn State is NAMBLA's headquarters.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:03 am |
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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.