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False idols at Penn State and elsewhere

"Idolized." Those who doubt that sports play a pseudo-religious role in American life now have their answer. Whether we are talking high-school football, high-school hoops in Indiana, baseball in Boston, college football in Alabama or pro football in Green Bay, it should be clear to all that -- at least in terms of sociology -- the line between fans and believers has all but been erased.

Back in my Denver days, I wrote a long memo to editors arguing that, as the religion-beat guy, I should be included (it was the born-again Dan Reeves era, when even the pre-divorce John Elway was an evangelical) in the Super Bowl coverage team. I said that if the Broncos were not a religion, Colorado didn't have a religion.

The editors laughed. Sure enough, the night before the big game -- Broncos vs. believer Joe Gibbs and his 'Skins -- the big story was NFL discomfort over the two teams praying together. I helped get the story covered, by telephone.

But back to today's issue.

"Idolized" is the key word in a remarkable Washington Post column by Sally Jenkins about the hell that has descended on Happy Valley, Pa.

Jenkins has written a controversial column, in and of itself. Many readers Post (online Q&A here) were infuriated by the headline on her piece: "Blame for the Penn State scandal does not lie with Joe Paterno."

And then there were the opening words of her lede:

Try to forgive Joe Paterno: When he looked at Jerry Sandusky, he didn’t see a dirty old man in a raincoat. He saw a friend, a close colleague, and a churchy do-gooder. He saw a nice guy. You’d have seen the same thing. Think not? You think you can see a clear-cut difference between an alleged child molester and a youth coach? How exactly? By the hunchback and the M-shaped scar on his forehead that says, “I’m a molester”?

We'll get back to that phrase "churchy do-gooder" in a minute.

The key to this piece is that Jenkins covers it as a child-molestation case, one that at this stage certainly appears to center on the crimes of a serial pedophile who created his own pool (the Second Mile charity) in which to troll for the weak and the defenseless. Thus, she sought information from an expert in the science of catching these monsters -- former FBI agent Ken Lanning -- and then applied what she learned to the hallowed status that has been granted by millions to Paterno and Penn State football.

You must read it all, before commenting. Here are two key passages, both of them of specific interest to GetReligion readers:

According to Lanning, who spent 35 years profiling pedophiles, a hallmark of “acquaintance molesters” is that they tend to be deeply trusted and even beloved. They are not strangers, but “one of us.” They are expert at seducing children and are almost as expert at seducing adults, including parents, into believing in them.

“How do we say to kids, ‘The only way these people differ is, they will be nicer to you than most adults?’” Lanning says. “They will listen to you, and shower you with attention and kindness, and so I want you to watch out for this evil bastard.’”

Until we rid ourselves of the myth of the “predator” in the raincoat preying on angelic victims, our discernment will continue to be clouded, says Lanning, who wrote a Justice Department-sponsored manual, “Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis.” And so will our judgment.

With that in mind, now let’s start again. If Sandusky is guilty of molesting, how do we parcel out the responsibility and decide what was preventable? Who should have recognized him, and how?

“Whether it’s the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, USA Swimming, or Little League, you look at these groups and say, why do they keep screwing this up?” Lanning asks.

Paterno, Lanning notes, was in the worst position to recognize Sandusky as a molester. As a close friend, he was among the people that this skilled stalker would have worked the hardest to deceive. As a close friend, Paterno was the person who had the most trust and affection that would have to have been shattered before he could see the truth. Authorities a stage or two removed -- such as a college athletic director or president -- would have been much more likely to have been able to see the patterns and, thus, have been able to sound an early alarm.

This is not true, argues Jenkins, because the person in question is the beloved JoePa.

This is true because these tragic truths have been seen in thousands and thousands of cases. Certain facts show up time and time again, such as predators focusing on disadvantaged children and those from broken homes. Which brings us to this, the truth that moves her very newsy column beyond football:

We need to ask ourselves what the worst sex abuse stories of the past few years have in common. Sports are hardly the only area deviants infiltrate; but they are one in which identifying them is made even harder by the tendency to consider identification an act of disloyalty, because it might damage an iconic franchise. And that is a hallmark of institutions that fail to protect victims. You want a profile of a place that harbors a profiled molester? Here it is:

“This is something that can happen to all institutions, but it is worse in organizations that have a certain aura about them,” Lanning says. “Two of the largest organizations in this country that have the biggest problem with this are the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. When you have that image, a program idolized as pure, the harder it is to admit you’ve made a mistake. If you have this need to appear to be perfect, the harder it is to admit that you made an error in judgment.”

This brings us, of course, to the emails I keep receiving from Catholics who are furious, once again, that their church is being pulled into 99.9 percent of the stories that are being written about Penn State. How many stories? I have tried to find out if Jenkins was on target when she put the word "churchy" in front of "do-gooder" in her lede.

I have given up trying to find out if there is a religion hook there, in large part because you can't do online searches for "church" and "Sandusky," or "Sandusky" and "Catholic," without getting several thousand hits. If anyone knows if there was an explicit religious angle to the work of The Second Mile (other than the biblical reference in the title) please let me know.

Catholics simply need to understand that the decades of scandals in their church about the sexual abuse of teen-agers and, in many fewer cases, young children are simply going to be cited in stories on this topic for years and years to come. That's the facts. The problem, however, is that many journalists seem to think that the Catholic church, alone, fits the predatory patterns (and the cover-ups that follow) that can be seen elsewhere.

True, many scribes do mention the Boy Scouts -- another conservative institution. However, few dig into the similar patterns found in a wide variety of religious and charitable groups. Southern Baptists, for example, are becoming increasingly aware of this issue (a rather brave statement here), in part because their congregational approach to church government makes it hard to trace the criminals and to warn others. Liberal churches harbor trusted monsters, as well.

And then there is the issue that really angers Catholics, the lack of widespread coverage of similar scandals in public schools (this is, sure enough, a "conservative news" topic). It's hard to ignore that subject, but oh so many do.

Will a specific religion-angle emerge in the Penn State apocalypse? Should readers be surprised if Sandusky has a history of being abused as a child? Would readers be stunned if he was abused in a church? I am sure that reporters are working those angles, even as I type. Then again, the trail of sin may lead elsewhere. As FBI agent Lanning stressed, and Jenkins wisely reported, there are patterns that only the foolish ignore.

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