Weekly Affirmation: Making Sense of Penn St.

Staff Columnist
Posted Nov 10, 2011

The columns being written this week on the fall of Joe Paterno are the most wrenching columns many hard-edged professionals will ever author in their careers. As the Penn State story becomes exponentially more dramatic and multifaceted, it's time to explain a thought process in this week's Affirmation.

By Matthew Zemek
Mr. Zemek's e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com

Follow Mr. Zemek and the Weekly Affirmation on Twitter: twitter.com/MattZemek_CFN

Walking Through A Thought Process: Penn State In A Wider Context

What has happened at Penn State University since 1998 has been revealed and then condensed into the past five days. Given the enormity of what happened in 1998 and in March of 2002, it is hardly surprising or inappropriate that emotions have been stirred as they've been in the past 100 hours. You know as well as I do that this is a story with many more dramas to come. There are more acts to this tragedy, more stages of revelation, testimony and maneuvering which will shift the moral, ethical and legal calculus of this slow-motion disaster to an even greater degree. More twists and turns lie ahead, with the most important ones centering around Jerry Sandusky, the disappearance of former county district attorney Ray Gricar, the breakdown of Penn State's campus police department, and the unwillingness of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz to act on what Joseph Vincent Paterno reportedly told them in March of 2002. As we wait for new revelations and the information contained within them, it is worth stepping back, breathing deeply, and taking stock of what has happened since the Saturday morning when this bombshell dropped, and a university fell to its knees in shame, all while one of the foremost icons in the history of American sports had his legacy sullied forever.


One of the enduringly important things to absorb and appreciate about journalism is that it is not a bias-free craft. Every person brings the bias of his or her personal viewpoint to any piece which allows for the slightest degree of news analysis, editorial commentary, or opinion-giving. Each person is a product of life experiences and a unique upbringing, hundreds of millions of little events that, by age 30 or 40 or 50, create a layered understanding of morality, ethics and justice. This bias is not an inappropriate one, because each person's conscience – his or her moral center – inevitably and necessarily forms the basis for a given set of beliefs and the opinions which flow from them. As the Weekly Affirmation has said in the past when discussing stories such as the Mike Gundy rant at Oklahoma State, personal bias is a natural part of commentary and analysis. The unacceptable manifestation of bias is a bias which knowingly swims against tides of fact, the bias which intentionally ignores plain truths to give voice to views that simply cannot exist in the presence of those very truths. The views that come from a commentator's personal bias might often be wrong, and they will certainly not capture the entirety of a given situation in all its ambiguities and complexities, but they are worth the grappling match in your mind. What you're about to read isn't anything that should represent a definitive assessment on the events of the past five days (and, in retrospect, 13 years) at Penn State University; quite the contrary. Rather than telling you WHAT to think, rather than insisting that you should arrive at a certain set of conclusions, the Weekly Affirmation instead wishes to give you a basic template for HOW to think through this story in all its permutations and plot twists. The only way that can begin is for me to tell you how my thought process has been shaped and then re-shaped – first, by my own experiences, and then by the unfolding events of recent days in State College, Pennsylvania.


My perspective on everything at Penn State related to the alleged abuse of minors by Jerry Sandusky and the way various principal figures dealt with the matter can be traced to my identity as an American Catholic. It's simply impossible for me to look at these events in State College and not harken back to 2002, the year the American Catholic Church's sex-abuse crisis was brought into the light of day by the Boston Globe. The fact that the Paternos are devout Catholics who have funded a spiritual center at Penn State only adds to the layers of understanding waiting to be unearthed by national journalists who have yet to explore this particular line of questioning with JoePa and his wife, Sue. The fact that 2002 is also the same year when Paterno and other leaders at Penn State failed to contact non-campus police in light of Mike McQueary's report of disturbing sexual conduct by Sandusky only adds to the centrality of "the Catholic angle" for me. I would imagine that it does the same for other American Catholics whose views on reporting sexual abuse were shaped or re-shaped in 2002.

The most essential fact of the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church – also the most damning one – is that senior leaders in the American Church were silent about the violations of young boys that occurred under their watch and with their knowledge. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, in particular, knowingly allowed predator priests to be reassigned to other parishes. The Catholic Church responded with silence in the face of its knowledge of evil. This is why Cardinals Law and Mahony should be in jail, and this is why the credibility of the Catholic Church suffers even now, with scandals being unearthed across the globe, even with Pope Benedict's (now former) advisor on matters relating to pedophile priests and the larger issue of pedophilia within institutional Catholic circles.

No one needs any explanation about the following statement: Mike McQueary and, for that matter, Joe Paterno did not do nearly enough when they learned of Jerry Sandusky's behavior – McQueary by direct sight according to the 23-page grand jury document released last weekend; Paterno from McQueary's report. It is not the intent of the Weekly Affirmation to make excuses for McQueary or Paterno, or to deny their part in allowing Sandusky to roam free in the years following 2002. What I do wish to say is that in light of the Catholic Church's grave and grievous sins, McQueary (whose religious faith I do not know) and Paterno (a staunch Catholic) met a higher standard of conduct than the Catholic Church. Yes, the Catholic Church's behavior was so low that it would have to reach upward to touch a snake – I'm aware of that – but the instructive point is that McQueary and Paterno were NOT SILENT in the face of Sandusky's alleged actions. Silence was the Catholic Church's playbook, not McQueary's or Paterno's. I fully realize that is small and cold comfort to the victims and their families, and frankly, it should be of no comfort to them. However, for the sake of making moral and ethical assessments of those two men, it matters. The people in this sorry, sad and sickening episode who WERE silent were Tim Curley, Gary Schultz (the man in charge of campus police at Penn State), Graham Spanier, and other higher-ups in Penn State's senior administrative structures, including those in the school's police department and legal offices, such as counsel Wendell Courtney, who was also the counsel on Sandusky's charitable organization, The Second Mile. It is quite understandable to assign a degree of guilt to McQueary and Paterno that is no different from the degree of guilt Curley, Schultz and Spanier deserve. I will not insist that you should do otherwise. What I will say is that the experience of being an American Catholic informs my view that McQueary and Paterno – McQueary in particular, given his young age (28 in March of 2002) in a good-old-boy power structure dominated by people more than twice his age – weren't silent. The people above them were. It's a small distinction in many ways, but since we're in the business of assessing roles, degrees of responsibility, and levels of blame, small distinctions do matter. You are free to arrive at different conclusions; as emphasized earlier, however, it is important to be conscious of HOW you think this through.


My experience as an American Catholic also informs the way my views have changed on this story as it unfolded over the past five days. This is where I can take you through the deepest and innermost details of my thought process, offering you not the conclusions you should arrive at but, again, a template for how you can guide your own conscience through this minefield of details in a multifaceted story that has spilled in so many directions not just over the past five days, but especially over the past 36 hours.

On late Saturday and through late Monday, I maintained the view that a "wait and see" attitude should be carried toward this story. I felt that Paterno deserved the chance to finish the regular season (through the Big Ten Championship Game if needed) but not lead Penn State into a bowl game. Why was this the case? I had not found information which clearly pointed to a lack of plausible deniability on Paterno's part in the years following March of 2002. I had not yet found information which told my conscience, "It is now clear, as a matter beyond speculation, that Paterno was aware of and confronted by Sandusky's continued post-2002 presence on the Penn State campus and, in response, did not follow through." Information which could establish the above point – that Paterno arrived at a moment of post-2002 knowledge of Sandusky's presence but did nothing about it – would make me change my mind and arrive at the conclusion that Paterno had to resign, effective immediately.

I found that information on Tuesday morning this past week. A gentleman on Twitter pointed me to a New York Daily News story from Monday (November 7) in which reporters Dick Weiss, Teri Thompson, and Christian Red stated that Sandusky "was seen at a Penn State practice with a 12- or-13-year-old boy as recently as 2007." The practice field is the province of the head football coach; that practice was Paterno's practice. Sandusky's presence there was tantamount to Paterno's acceptance and approval of said presence. It was consistent with a neglectful response, or perhaps non-response, to a post-2002 world in which Paterno couldn't walk away from the possibility of what Sandusky did. That story changed my view about Paterno: He wasn't silent in March of 2002, but his utter failure to follow through and pursue the matter – choosing to protect the institution of Penn State and the latter stages of his career more than victims – is what makes him more like the institutional Catholic Church, the Church whose lessons – imparted in 2002 – were lost on Paterno.

There is a large, searing and profound irony at work in relationship to Paterno's life and the ways in which it is being reassessed. To understand this irony, it's helpful to work within a set of parallels involving layers of Catholic ecclesial governance and responsibility.

In March of 2002, Paterno was not situated in a role commensurate with or akin to Cardinal Law in Boston, or the bishop of any other diocese who oversaw the reassignment of priests while maintaining a veil of silence on the matter. Let that point sink in and hold onto it for a few minutes. You'll soon see how it's relevant to the ways in which Paterno's place in this developing story has changed.

In March of 2002, Tim Curley held the role most closely associated with a bishop if you want to extend the parallel. McQueary was the young seminarian who – fearful of the power structure but not wanting to do nothing – reported the incident to the parish pastor, Paterno. JoePa went to the bishop, where the buck was supposed to stop. Graham Spanier could be likened to a Vatican official with knowledge of the situation, a man who could have stepped in and imposed order from a higher place of institutional authority, but Curley – the man in charge of the athletic department – was really the person who bore more immediate responsibility (more than anyone else) for the information that Paterno, via McQueary, laid at his desk.

Here's how Paterno's role – much like the way in which we newly see him – changed since Monday night of this week. With Curley and Schultz turning themselves in to the authorities, and with Spanier in hiding before being booted by a well-intentioned yet not-very-competent Penn State Board of Trustees late Wednesday night (we'll make an exception for John Surma, the spokesman for the Board, who handled himself incredibly well in the face of puerile and embarrassing non-question questions from Penn State fans masquerading as student journalists who should have their credentials revoked for good…), the power vacuum on the Penn State campus made Paterno the bishop, the Cardinal Law-like figure he expressly HAD NOT BEEN in March of 2002, when Tim Curley and Gary Schultz committed the most central betrayals of this saga and Graham Spanier didn't intervene to assert order. Indeed, from late Monday through the time he was fired late Wednesday night, Paterno became – not by his own choice, but because of the dominoes falling around him – the voice of authority on the Penn State campus. No one else on the scene was taking control; the Board of Trustees allowed a situation to escalate and then committed the jaw-dropping blunder of calling its press conference at a time of day (10 p.m. local time) that was conducive to late-night violence on the part of a student body that was naturally going to vent a lot of frustrations in response to the firing of JoePa.

The point is plain: Everything Paterno had not been in March of 2002 suddenly – for 48 hours or so – fell into his lap. The "Cardinal Paterno" or "Bishop Paterno" metaphor he did not deserve in March of 2002 suddenly applied. After failing to do what he could have and should have done in 2002 – after failing to do his best, his fullest, his utmost, for the victims of Sandusky's alleged abuses – Paterno had a chance to set an example, an example of wisdom, an example of a wise person who majored in English literature and has studied the classics. Paterno, an elderly man, had a chance to show that he was an elder (there's a profound difference between "elderly" and "elder"), a "wisdom person" and the guide for a community, the guide and conscience he so clearly had not been in March of 2002. Joe Paterno, a devout Catholic Christian and the co-funder of a spiritual center with Sue Paterno, had a chance to tell the Penn State family that, in the spirit of 2 Philippians chapter 6 – the second reading on Palm Sunday Mass every year – "he did not deem equality with God something to be clung to." Paterno could have done what Jesus did: He could have told the masses that laying down one's power in the service of a greater good is a significantly restorative act which brings about (at least the start of) healing. He could have made strong and unequivocal statements to the student body to tell them to refrain from violence and to not protest any actions made against him. He could have resigned and told students that it is what he needed to do to begin a long and painful healing process. He could have commanded a podium or some other official place in which his message would have resonated clearly on national television, so that everyone in State College could absorb the need to focus on the victims and deal with the prosecution of Jerry Sandusky.

Instead, Paterno chose a different route… not quite a route based on deception (though his Wednesday morning statement clearly did try to manipulate the Board of Trustees, ironically accelerating the course of events that led to his firing; the bluff backfired…), but certainly a feeble and tone-deaf performance that failed to stem the tide of misplaced student outrage. Paterno's appearances, first on his lawn Tuesday night and then in front of his house on Wednesday night, revealed not a vile or monstrous man, but a man whose mind and conscience have simply not grasped the weight or the enormity of what's going on around him. Yes, Paterno did tell students to "go study" and pray for the victims when the violence and disruptive behavior on the Penn State campus were increasing, but if Paterno had set an example and commanded the stage the way a person with his centrality should have done, Wednesday night's unsettling scene on the streets of Penn State University would have been avoided. This wasn't always the case, but when the other administrative leaders were out of the picture for 48 hours from late Monday through late Wednesday, Paterno WAS the only figure at Penn State with any real-world ability to change the trajectory of the situation in a manner that would serve the greater good. Paterno failed, and his insistence on clinging to power – let me coach the rest of the season, please, and let me stick around to fix this broken system that I was a part of – sadly yet undeniably makes him just the latest in an endless line of powerful men who think they can fix what they broke. No, that's what Cardinal Law and Cardinal Mahony and so many other Catholic Church leaders wanted to do. It's what so many politicians do, regardless of party or ideology, when scandal first hits. It's what the disreputable Wall Street executives and bankers (not the honorable ones, and there are some…) have done since 2008 if not earlier.

Wise people are not infallible people. Educated people are not infallible people. Joe Paterno has gained and conveyed much wisdom. He is a deeply educated man. Yet, when confronted with the fact that he didn't do nearly enough to stop Jerry Sandusky – something he himself admitted in his Wednesday morning statement – Paterno responded to that fact by not stepping down, by not doing what a "wisdom person" does. He did not quell the student uprisings that sought to protect and bolster his diminished reputation and his hollowed-out moral authority. When Joe Paterno was brought low, he needed to do what a wisdom person does when brought low. His failure to act in accordance with wisdom, with the teachings of great spiritual masters, is what makes him more like Cardinal Law, not March of 2002. It is in this ironic way that Paterno's image – sullied by what happened nine years ago – has now acquired a particularly pathetic quality.


It is frankly impossible to cover every single dimension of this ever-expanding story, but one final section of Penn State's fall from grace is worth examining: the student protests and the nation's reaction to them.

Hundreds of voices (if not thousands) on Twitter – surely multiplied by those on Facebook, other social media forums, and other internet outlets (not to mention non-cyberspace venues across America) – have expressed their outrage at the student protests defending Joe Paterno. This outrage against pro-JoePa demonstrations is understandable and, I think, not hugely consequential in an immediate context. A lot of venting is going on here, and that's to be expected when such profound social, institutional, departmental upheavals emerge in a short period of time. The fact that one of American sports' most central and respected icons has been brought so low in such a short period of time is also responsible for stirring emotions to the extreme and creating a profound case of intellectual whiplash. We're all adjusting on the fly, trying to express our deepest concerns for the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky and their families while also trying to wrap our minds around the fact that Joseph Vincent Paterno has been fired by Penn State in the middle of a football season. Now that the reality of the situation is sinking in, however, it's worth wrestling with our reactions to the students' reaction at Penn State.

One of the central facts of human life is that our mileage varies. Each person learns and grows at a different rate. Each person is a dependent being at birth and grows up in a different set of circumstances – a different mom, a different dad, or perhaps no mom or no dad. Some grow under the care of grandparents, some not; some live in gritty, cracked-sidewalk parts of the Hood, some in posh suburbs; some in rural areas, some in urban centers; some in places where religious faith is extremely important, some in places where secular humanism is a prevailing view. You get the point – we learn at different rates and, going back to the beginning of this essay, are shaped by millions of different little experiences that coalesce to create the larger and always-unfolding worldview we carry in the centers of our being. From this realization must come a sense of proportion and perspective about the students at Penn State who are defending Joe Paterno.

For one thing, you don't have to think very long or hard to realize that college football inspires over-the-top passions. You don't need an explanation or a lecture about the fact that American culture values athletic prowess and material success, otherwise known as "winning big." We like underdogs, but we – as a culture, mind you, not necessarily as 300 million-plus individuals – also like the self-made person who amasses a fortune and puts the world at his or her feet. We – as a culture, particularly within the realm of college football – make coaches into messiah-like figures. What you see at Penn State is simply not surprising; perhaps it's worthy of outrage (I don't think so, yet I understand why it would be), but it should not shock the American mind. If Nick Saban or Bob Stoops or Frank Beamer or Les Miles got enveloped in an unholy scandal, do you REALLY think the situation would be terribly different from the one at Penn State? You know the answer to that rhetorical question.

No, these students at Penn State are not doing something that should merit long-term embarrassment. These students are not doing something that should prevent them from having children in the future. No, these students aren't engaging in behaviors that should hound and haunt them to their graves. Oh, they should eventually be embarrassed by what they're doing, but they should experience the kind of embarrassment we all feel as growing, evolving persons: "What the heck was I thinking when I was 20 years old?" We were all a lot more foolish and a lot more ignorant about the world when we were 20, and that's not a point of great shame. Life is complex. Life is HARD. Life is very, very, very difficult to understand and process, let alone solve. As big a mess as this Penn State story is, what about our country? What about our economy? What about our foreign policy? There are so many issues which our society has frankly not figured out, so many aspects of life and living that our collective culture and our accumulated national wisdom have not been able to resolve with any semblance of what could be viewed as competence. Thunderously condemning Penn State students in the face of their beloved head football coach's ouster is an act that is disproportionate in the first place; what's far more important to realize, though, is that we should not expect 20-year-olds to have a fully-formed sense of morality and ethics… partly because life is complex, but also because our culture does not promote or incentivize holistic moral education. Our culture places primacy and importance on getting ahead, making a killing, and living a comfortable life. Our culture doesn't emphasize wrestling with evil, facing our weaknesses, or focusing on the vulnerable and those who live in the shadows of life.

You may reach any conclusion you want on this Penn State story, but allow these Penn State students to grow, to come to terms with the world they live in, to experience life as any 20-year-old should. By the time these students become 30-year-olds, many of them will "get it." By 40, more of them will get it. They will have children, and they will be responsible. What we can do in the meantime is to have discussions with our own children – and our neighbors, and our neighbors' children, and others – about a moral and ethical education, what it means to be a moral and ethical person. There's no need for me to insist on what the guideposts are, but there is a need to insist that we assess and reassess the ways in which we process these various issues, the HOW of our thinking, not the WHAT of our thinking.

How Joe Paterno and Penn State's other leaders treated this situation in March of 2002 (and in the past few days) says a lot about the ways in which their minds didn't adjust with the times. The Catholic Church was silent on sex abuse in 2002; we don't know this, but it could very well be that Joe Paterno's mind told him that by reporting up the chain of command, he was doing something more than Cardinal Law, something better than Cardinal Law, enough to address the situation according to his conscience. However, the world of 2002 is different from the world of 2011. A lot of minds have changed in terms of the way our society and culture view the reporting of sex abuse; Joe Paterno's mind clearly didn't adjust. This is merely an act of peering into another person's mind, not a statement of fact: Joe Paterno's own failure to adjust his understanding of what it meant – and means – to sufficiently act in the face of horrifying knowledge might have been his greatest failure of all. In many ways, then, the most important thing we can do – as parents who attempt to educate our children, or as college students attempting to make sense of life through the prism of this Penn State scandal – is to make sure that our minds are always evolving, open to new ways of seeing and thinking in response to all the challenges posed by a brutally bewildering and complex world.

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