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What The Church and Its Leaders Should Learn from Joe Paterno

November 10th, 2011
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I have watched and listened and read, with increasing disgust, the story about Joe Paterno and his negligent handling of the sexual assault on young boys by one of his football team’s coaches. The story is sick enough in itself, the details of which will make you literally feel like vomiting, but nearly as revolting is the reaction of many people to Paterno’s firing. It points how utterly stupid the entire college sport scene has become and particularly, college football. But how can the Church learn from this situation? Kudos to Al Mohler for some excellent thoughts and reflection on the entire sick and sordid incident. Here are Mohler’s comments from his web site.

No one thought it would end this way. Joe Paterno, the legendary head football coach at Penn State University heard of his firing by the school’s board of trustees by phone last night. Just two weeks after achieving the most wins of any NCAA Division One football coach in history, Paterno was fired. His firing — a necessary action by the Penn State board of trustees — holds lessons for us all.

Almost a decade ago, a graduate assistant told Coach Paterno that an assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, had been observed forcing a young boy into a sexual act in the school’s football locker room showers. Sandusky was himself a big name in Penn State football, and he was considered a likely successor to Paterno if the head coach had retired. Sandusky also ran a non-profit organization for boys, and he brought the boys onto the Penn State campus. He continued to do so even after his own retirement from Penn State’s coaching staff.

After hearing the report, Paterno informed university officials of the accusation. At that point, little or nothing seems to have happened. The scandal broke into public view last Saturday, when Sandusky was arrested and charged with 40 felony counts of sexual abuse involving young boys. Penn State had been harboring a serial child sex abuser. Also arrested were the university’s athletic director and its senior vice president of business and finance. Both were charged with failure to report the abuse and with perjury.

What about Paterno and the university’s president, Graham B. Spanier? The Pennsylvania grand jury said that both men had knowledge of the 2002 first-hand report of abuse, and neither contacted the police. Furthermore, Sandusky was allowed some use of university facilities even long after this report. Paterno went back to coaching football. Spanier went back to raising money and building the school’s reputation. Jerry Sandusky had every opportunity to keep on sexually abusing young boys.

When the facts became known, the firings of both Paterno and Spanier were inevitable and necessary. Both men had credible knowledge that young boys were being sexually abused, and neither did anything effective to stop it. Most crucially, neither man did what they should have done within minutes of hearing the first report — contact law enforcement immediately.

Every single coach, athletic director, and college or university president awoke this morning to a changed world. Nothing will ever be the same again. The firing of Joe Paterno will send shock waves through the entire world of higher education. A man who a day before had announced under pressure that he would retire at the end of the season was told by phone that he would never coach another game. Penn State University will forever be associated with a scandal the likes of which college athletics has, thankfully, never seen before.

But the world has not only changed for college athletics. The detonation of the Penn State scandal must shake the entire nation into a new moral awareness. Any failure to report and to stop the sexual abuse of children must be made inconceivable. The moral irresponsibility that Penn State officials demonstrated in this tragedy may well be criminal. There can be no doubt that all of these officials bear responsibility for allowing a sexual predator to continue his attacks.

What about churches, Christian institutions, and Christian schools? The Penn State disaster must serve as a warning to us as well, for we bear an even higher moral responsibility.

The moral and legal responsibility of every Christian — and especially every Christian leader and minister — must be to report any suspicion of the abuse of a child to law enforcement authorities. Christians are sometimes reluctant to do this, but this reluctance is both deadly and wrong.

Sometimes Christians are reluctant to report suspected sexual abuse because they do not feel that they know enough about the situation. They are afraid of making a false accusation. This is the wrong instinct. We do not have the ability to conduct the kind of investigation that is needed, nor is this assigned to the church. This is the function of government as instituted by God (Romans 13). Waiting for further information allows a predator to continue and puts children at risk. This is itself an immoral act that needs to be seen for what it is.

A Christian hearing a report of sexual abuse within a church, Christian organization, or Christian school, needs to act in exactly the same manner called for if the abuse is reported in any other context. The church and Christian organizations must not become safe places for abusers. These must be safe places for children, and for all. Any report of sexual abuse must lead immediately to action. That action cannot fall short of contacting law enforcement authorities. A clear lesson of the Penn State scandal is this: Internal reporting is simply not enough.

After law enforcement authorities have been notified, the church must conduct its own work of pastoral ministry, care, and church discipline. This is the church’s responsibility and charge. But these essential Christian ministries and responsibilities are not substitutes for the proper function of law enforcement authorities and the legal system. As Christians, we respect those authorities because we are commanded to do so.

There may well be further arrests in connection with the Penn State scandal. One can only imagine the lawsuits that will consume the university’s time and treasury in years ahead. Christian institutions and churches looking at this scandal had better act immediately to ensure that all operate under adequate policies and guidelines. What would prevent this scandal at your school or church?

Church leaders and pastors must decide now — not later — that we will respond to any report of sexual abuse with immediate action and an immediate call to law enforcement officials. We must decide in advance what we will do, and not allow ourselves to think that we can handle such a challenge on our own. Every church and Christian institution needs a full set of policies, procedures, and accountability structures. As leaders, we must develop the right instincts for right action.

The leaders of Penn State University must have acted, or failed to have acted, out of many motivations. One may well have been to protect the image and reputation of the university. Well, we now see where that leads. A scandal reported and ended in 2002 would be horrible enough. A scandal that began there, was known by officials, and explodes almost a decade later is too horrible to contemplate.

We all need an immediate reality check. I discovered yesterday that the policy handbook of the institution I am proud to lead calls for any employee receiving a report of child abuse, including child sexual abuse, to contact his or her supervisor with that report. That changes today. The new policy statement will direct employees receiving such a report to contact law enforcement authorities without delay. Then, after acting in the interests of the child, they should contact their supervisor.

In a real sense, the whole world changed today. We all know more than we knew before, and we are all responsible for that knowledge. The costs of acting wrongly in such a situation, or acting inadequately, are written across today’s headlines and the moral conscience of the nation. The tragedy at Penn State is teaching the entire nation a lesson it dare not fail to learn.

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Categories: Culture, Current Affairs
  1. Jack Keene
    November 10th, 2011 at 12:58 | #1

    I disagree, unless more facts come out. Paterno did exactly what he was supposed to do. He IMMEDIATELY reported it to his supervisor. He did not witness the abuse, he was told of it.
    I work for one of the largest corporations in the world. we are told that if we hear any reports of harassment or abuse to immediately report it to our supervisor so it may be investigated. If every time someone heard a report of harassment or abuse they automatically contacted police, all kinds of innocent people could be destroyed on the basis of rumor. Paterno reported it and the University should have investigated it and reported it to the police.

    He didn’t cover anything up. He reported it.

  2. November 10th, 2011 at 13:05 | #2

    This is the most sense you have made in a long time. TW

  3. Matt
    November 10th, 2011 at 13:09 | #3

    Very well put. As church members, we must be constantly vigilant for the safety of all children in and around our buildings and events. We also should look out for one another, so that not even the appearance of impropriety is possible. As awkward as this is around people we know, love and trust; I think its a wise policy to never leave a child alone with an adult without other adults present. Pastors, especially, must keep themselves above reproach; and those that love them should never let them put themselves in a questionable situation.

  4. Phil
    November 10th, 2011 at 14:34 | #4

    How will this affect the seal of the confessional?

    • November 10th, 2011 at 15:46 | #5

      I would not absolve a sin for which a person was not willing to be held accountable and if he would not turn himself in, I’d report him to the authorities. Period.

  5. Gregory Davidson
    November 10th, 2011 at 21:29 | #6

    @Jack Keene
    Yes, he fulfilled the letter of the PSU policy on at least one occasion, but where is his compassion or concern for the boys who were being abused? Plenty of people throughout history have ‘just done their job’ while horrors unfolded around them. His choice not to act to protect these young boys is startlingly unconscionable and fiercely inhumane. A modern day witness to the monstrosity of sin on par with the biblical account of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba.

  6. Ted Badje
    November 11th, 2011 at 07:40 | #7

    Croney-ism, or the ‘good old boy network’ should have been addressed long ago in all colleges and universities. I think you are going to see more stories like this one uncovered. One factor in this story is age. Paterno had less awareness of what was going around him, and unfortunately some people overstay their effectiveness and accountability. The safety and welfare of students and visitors should be the #1 job of faculty and staff at universities. I applaud your change of policy, Pastor McCain.

  7. Jonathan Trost
    November 11th, 2011 at 10:14 | #8


    “Boy, oh boy”, Pastor, you’ve got me “scratching my head” on this one.

    I’ve always understood that the components of a genuine confession are “in the head and heart”: owning the behavior; acknowledging its sinful nature; feeling remorseful as a result of it; being repentant in response to it, i.e., being desirous and willing to have self amended by the power of the Holy Spirit so as not to repeat the sin in the future; and beleving that, following absolution, the sin is truly forgiven by Christ as a result of his having atoned for it.

    But, you seem to be saying that, in order to receive absolution, there is the further component of being willing to perform a specific act of penance, i.e., turning oneself in. And, does that not make the absolution contingent upon the performance of that subsequent penitential act?

    Moreover, are you saying, too, that behaviors confessed that are not only sinful in the eyes of God, but also are criminal in the eyes of the state must be reported by you, the confessor, to the civil authorities? If so, what are the ramifications of that upon Confession?

    Thanks for some edification here.

    • November 11th, 2011 at 13:29 | #9

      A person who has committed a crime is not repentant if he is unwilling to be held accountable for that crime. All he is remorseful, not repentant. Hence, no repentance, no genuine confession, no absolution. The pastor should report him. Otherwise, we have reduced confession/absolution as nothing more than a “get out of jail free card” and made a mockery of sin and grace, law and gospel, confession and absolution. We are not to cast pearls before swine.

  8. Jonathan Trost
    November 11th, 2011 at 12:50 | #10

    Relating to my 2nd quesdtion above, apparently state law is relevant, not to “morally should?”, but to “legally must?” the confessor report his penitent’s admission of having committed a crime.

    As relates to child abuse specifically, some states apparently have a category of “mandatory reporters”, those required by law to report, notwithstanding the legal concept of confessor/penitent privilege. In some of those states, clergy are among the mandatory reporters; in others they are not. I’m not sure but (again, relating to child abuse) I believe Missouri and other states say clergy are mandatory reporters; New York and others say they are not.

    What a lousy position to put pastors in — their having to stay on top of state law in this regard. It must be quite a job for districts/synods, too.

  9. November 11th, 2011 at 19:19 | #11

    Pastor McCain, I have to agree with you wholeheartedly. The bible is very clear on it too.
    When you give absolution to a confessing sinner, if you have doubts about his true repentence, you can withold the absolution or take other appropriate actions. You are acting in place of Christ, and Jesus said, “What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven abd what you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”. Regarding what Jonathan said about mandated reporters, he is correct. I worked in law enforcement in NY State for many years. Certain people that normally come into contact with kids are called mandated reporters. They include teachers, police officer, doctors, nurses, social workers, and a few other categories of people. These mandated reporters MUST report even “suspected” child abuse. As long as a mandated reporter can verbalize his suspicions, he is immune from criminal and civil reprisals if he is wrong. Anyone else “can” report child abuse and I would go so far to say that we are morally obligated to tell the police if we have grounds to do so. Children are innocent and cannot always protect themselves from these predators. Kids can be easily manipulated by abusers or tricked into keeping the secret. A sexually abused child can become an abusive adult of he doesn’t get immediate psychological help.
    Sometimes an abused child will develope homosexuality if he was abused by a same sex abuser. These kids must be protected at all costs. Unfortunately, child sex abusers usually NEVER become normal even after spending years in jail. They should be kept away from society until death.

  10. November 13th, 2011 at 19:12 | #12

    Pastor McCain, I agree with your post, but have one question yet about the confidentiality of the confession. Missouri law does make a minister a mandated reporter, but also does appear to exclude a report based on a “privileged communication made in his or her professional capacity.” (See http://www.moga.mo.gov/statutes/C300-399/3520000400.HTM). The same rule applies also for matters other than child abuse, (see http://www.moga.mo.gov/statutes/C400-499/4910000060.HTM). Does the LCMS allow, or even require, you to report to authorities a statement made by someone as part of private confession? The state law seems to allow, but not require, the report of a privileged communication, and I am curious as to whether the religious rules require, allow, or prohibit such a report?

    • November 13th, 2011 at 22:48 | #13

      My position is that there is no actual Biblical repentance in the case where a person has committed a crime but is unwilling to allow himself to be held accountable, therefore, no “confession” . . . pastors are not “grace machines” just giving our absolution as long as people mouth the right words.

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