Joe Paterno, Jimmy Swaggart, and the Culture of Cover Up

Why do institutions such as the Catholic Church and Penn State University so readily betray their deeply held values by trying to cover up child molestation?

Catholic priests have been molesting children for Lord knows how long.  The church betrayed its values by covering it up in one country after another.

Now it turns out that Jerry Sandusky, longtime assistant and one-time heir apparent to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, used his charity as a platform for sexually molesting boys. And once more, there was a cover up that apparently went to the highest levels of the school: a complete betrayal of the values a university stands for.

When we see a pattern of institutions so starkly contradicting the values they supposedly stands for, the question is no longer about why some individual people do horrible things. A broken person like Sandusky can appear anywhere, unfortunately. Rather, a more pressing question is why would institutions such as churches and schools so readily betray their deeply held values by engaging in a cover up when tragedies of this nature do occur?

It goes without saying that a church is specifically designed to protect and help people, while a university is profoundly dedicated to openness and honesty. These kinds of cover-ups are absolutely antithetical to those values.

Of course there are many explanations for this pattern of institutional betrayal. But I think a particularly important and oft overlooked one is that it’s actually nothing new for many churches and schools to betray their values in a more general sense. That is, many religious institutions and schools are not being true to themselves in very basic ways.

If a church is really run like a church and a school is run like a school, then this kind of betrayal is far more shocking and unexpected. But all of these institutions betray their values when they are run like something else. In particular, they are often run like businesses and governments.

For starters, the Vatican is literally a government, a tiny little nation unto itself.  And on a commercial level, the church is also one of the richest institutions in the entire world, holding vast wealth and overseeing a global network of largely self-sustaining enterprises.

If the Catholic church, and many other organized religious institutions for that matter, are usually coy about operating like businesses and governments, universities have been much more brazen about it. In fact, many university administrators around the nation practically brag about how they strive to run their schools like a business, emphasizing efficiency and revenue, paying little more than lip service to educational values, and routinely referring to students as  “customers.”

But here’s the the thing. Governments and businesses have fundamentally different missions and priorities than churches and schools. And when you adopt those priorities and pursuits, new values are bound to follow.

Governments work hard to maintain their credibility at all costs, because that is the basis of their rule.  So politicians typically go to great lengths covering up not only their personal misdeeds, but also systemic malfeasance as well.

Businesses are of course highly competitive and concerned with earning profits.  Consequently, they will typically do what they can to eliminate threats.  Thus, it becomes normal to consider something like a sexual assault lawsuit against the head of your organization, such as were filed against Herman Cain when he ran the National Restaurant Association, to be a legal nuisance. In that light, it can seem perfectly rational to simply pay off the victims within reason to secure the business operations. Penalizing or correcting your top gun is beside the point and maybe even counterproductive.

When a church or a school operates like a government or a business, it inevitably begins to internalize and even exalt the values of government or business.  And once you’ve internalized the values, actions will soon follow.

Indeed, when news of Paterno’s tacit role in this reprehensible affair and his subsequent dismissal rocked the Penn State campus, most of the customers/students didn’t express their disgust at the molestation and cover up. Instead, they protested the firing of Paterno by rioting in the streets. After all, many of them see themselves primarily as customers instead of students, they pay good money for an entertainment product in the form of college football, and Paterno is the seminal figure in that product.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise when people at an institution completely betray their stated values when the institution itself has already been doing so by aping inappropriate models.

Of course a business needs to be run like a business and a government needs to be run like a government. But at the same token, a church needs to be run like a church and a school needs to be run like a school. Anything else will inevitably foster an environment and create conditions that lead to this kind of institutional hypocrisy.


You can follow Akim Reinhardt at his blog.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Needaname November 12, 2011 at 01:01 PM
I know this comment will generate a lot of heat. Do you think this situation continuing for as long as it did has anything to do with the primary parties being men ? What is the FIRST thought that came to any mans mind. Disgust ? Maybe a consenting kid ? Confusion ? I know for certain that if myself - a female or any of my female friends had seen anything happening in a shower we would have gone immediately into that shower and somebody would have been taken out on a shower with some serious injuries.
Akim Reinhardt November 12, 2011 at 04:49 PM
To start, let me say that there are many, many factors, explanations, and reasons at work here, and that I only touched on one of them (and a pretty abstract one at that), so I welcome a fuller discussion. So thanks for bringing it up. Looking at the male angle, on the one hand I think it's indisputable that gender does play some kind of role. For example, the vast majority of child molesters are male. Why is that? I don't know. It's well beyond my areas of research. But I hesitate to speculate about how this would have been handled, for example, if it were a prestigious women's sports program and all of the people involved were female. And of course there's no female college sports program anywhere near as big or powerful as Penn State football, so there are real limitations to that kind of conjecture.
Needaname November 12, 2011 at 07:19 PM
But Akim - it happened in the church too.
Bart November 12, 2011 at 07:31 PM
In this country we have a peculiar way of setting up our "gods". Sports, entertainment, religion. Can you imagine the outcry if the attacker had been a teacher, or, umm, an Associate Professor of History?This would have been whipped up so fast it's make your head spin. This disgusting pattern has been going on at Penn State for over a decade. Sandusky continued to bring young boys to practices, and nobody said anything. I don't care how many games the old man won, he has lost all credibility as a human being; knowing this was going on and doing nothing about it.
Tom Henry November 14, 2011 at 11:57 AM
I agree that all that have been involved in these scandals should be brought to justice to the fullest extent of the law. However, why does the Occupy movement (and the willing accomplices of the media) cover up the rapes, molestations, fire bombings and disease spreading occurring there? The places they occupy are against the law as well. Please address that, as you are an adamant supporter of that movement.


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