Joe Paterno is a legendary football coach who has won more games than anyone else in his profession, yet his legacy will be forever stained by the sin of omission in it’s ugliest form. As anyone who does not live under a rock knows (apparently this excludes Ashton Kutcher of all people?) the Penn State Board of Trustees fired Paterno along with the university president Graham B. Spanier for their involvement in covering up or “ignoring” sexual abuse charges against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky (see “Penn State Trustees Fire President and Legendary Coach”). At this juncture we do not know how much Paterno knew, but we do know he knew enough that he ought to have investigated further. Paterno was a man of great power and authority in that university and as many have noted, if Paterno had wanted to make more of it there would have been more made of it (see an article by Buzz Bissinger’s that my wife pointed out to me titled “Good Riddance, Joe Paterno” for straight-talk on this issue).
Some people were outraged by Paterno’s firing. It seemed to them that he was the scapegoat for something he did not do. It is accurate to note that thus far it seems like he did what was right before the law of the land, but situations like these show that morality matters. Paterno told his so-called “superiors”, but he should have done more. Again, read Bissinger’s article, Paterno could have done more. Those who are angry with the university for firing Paterno may be guilty of Tim Wise’s stinging remarks when he tweeted: “Penn St: a cult in which mostly white students defend a white coach who protected another white coach who raped mostly black kids.” Penn State made a good decision by sending a message than even a man of Paterno’s stature was not above the consequences of ignoring the sexual abuse of children.
Some Christians may remark (correctly) that we worship a Lord and Messiah who is full of mercy and grace. This is true. I do not doubt that Christ can heal and forgive even the worse sinner.
Likewise, I realize that Jesus told us to forgive those who offend and harm us. Jesus told us to be willing to be harmed by others for the sake of his Kingdom. That being said, this is a different situation in my mind. Rather, Spanier, Paterno, and everyone else involved used their power to oppress and harm. I hope they find grace before God, but we are right to hold them accountable as a society.
Why? Because Spanier, Paterno, et al., are not the victims, even if some try to frame it this way. They did the victimizing! Even Paterno, who’s sin may be one of not doing something still did not care enough about the possibility that someone was being victimized under his authority to risk the reputation of his mini-Kingdom. Now his mini-Kingdom has suffered a massive collapse.
As Rick Reilly has noted, the victims are the children abused by Sandusky (see “Remember the Children”). If we should be outraged that someone was mistreated it is not because Paterno will be forced to spend the last of his days living as a disgraced, wealthy old man. It should be that many young men were abused by someone who was claiming to offer them hope. Yes, yes, we need to let the legal process unfold because in our country people are “innocent until proven guilty”, but this is multiple accusations and my gut instinct tells me some of them must be accurate, if not all.
As Christians seeking to follow the model of Jesus in responding to these types of situations we must remember that the same Jesus that showed mercy to sinner is the one who said the following:
“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18.5-6)
“…if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.” (Mark 9.42)
“ Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17.1-2)
Jesus said it is better to tie a rock around your neck and drown at the bottom of the sea than to harm children. This statement was important enough for all three Synoptic Gospels to include it. I think this reflects a memory of a Jesus who felt very strongly that abuse of children should have consequences. We Christians know that these men can find the grace of God, but they should face the consequences in the mean time. I see no good reason to defend them, to make them the victim, or to shed a tear because it hurts some people’s images. There were young men who had their lives devastated by a predator who had the mask of a saint.
This debacle shows us that us whether or not we care about the least of these. Are we more worried that our famous celebrities have ruined reputations or that children were abused and no one cared to do something? Children with no defense are the least of these. To worry about powerful, wealthy men and their legacy, and to riot when they are slapped on the wrist as some Penn State students have done, shows me that some people have a wacky moral compass. Our rage should be directed at people who harm the defenseless–the orphan, the widow. Who was more an orphan than these young men? Who is more a widow than their mothers? Let Sandusky, et al., crawl before Christ asking for mercy, but don’t excuse them. If they want mercy, wonderful, but it is not our mercy to give. The victims were the children and their families. If anyone can forgive and if anyone has the right to make that decision to forgive it is them. We do not have that right.