When Child Abuse Is A Symptom

An especially egregious case of child sexual assault has come to light this week at Penn State. For those who haven’t heard about this one, what makes it horrifying is that the alleged perpetrator was caught in the act raping a boy in the Penn State football team’s showers. The assistant who caught accused child rapist Jerry Sandusky in the act didn’t intervene, didn’t call 911 and was satisfied with telling his superiors. They did nothing other than cover up the whole thing. Maureen Dowd made a connection to the Roman Catholic hierarchy and their child abuse cover-up that, at first, seemed like a stretch to me. Then I read this morning that Penn State fans had actually rioted in support of former head coach Joe Paterno. Here we have a whole group so devoted to Penn State that they would ignore the fairly serious evidence against the school in general and the football team in particular that suggests they covered up Sandusky’s (alleged) crimes. There are scores of people prepared to even lash out to defend Paterno.

When one develops a hierarchy, especially built around a cult of personality (or in the case of the Pope, around his office), the result is a system that will look out for its own reputation and for the smooth operation of the hierarchy above any other concerns. If Joe Paterno didn’t want to get his hands dirty with this sex abuse business, then no one else should get in there and make him look bad. Same thing with the Pope and various Catholic bishops. The really scary thing here is that Mike McQueary, the witness who is said to have caught Sandusky in the act told the Penn State hierarchy and then appeared to not do anything else. It’s curious because they seem to not have had to make any effort to gag him – certainly he would be offering up something like a threat of job-loss or something like that if it were the case, just to get the media off his back. This is the thing, a really well built hierarchy doesn’t require threats, it’s already made it unimaginable for anyone to oppose it from the inside.

Of course this doesn’t have to be about child abuse, witness CJ Mahaney’s troubles over his leadership style within his own church and ministries. In this case the damage is not as a severe – serious as it is to those who survived it – but nonetheless it’s another powerful man using a hierarchical system to achieve his own ends at the expense of others. And this is what I want to get to: in these types of cases, child abuse is actually symptom of a larger system that is set up so that those on top are able to control others to achieve their own ends – whatever those ends may be. Of course there can be benign or even salutary consequences to having a system where everyone cleaves together to accomplish common goals as set out by the leadership. The problem of course is that, human nature being what it is, people usually have a flurry of baser aims that they wish to accomplish – like the Borgias pictured above.

It is saddening, but not surprising when child rapists put themselves into positions where they can harm children. I say not surprising because it reminds me of the bank robber who, when asked why he robbed banks, said “because that’s where the money is.” When sexual abusers are found out to be working as clergy, teachers, coaches, scoutmasters and so on, it’s because that’s where the children are. This is just a sad, sick reality about which we must maintain a constant watchfulness. What matters then is how institutions react to the sadly inevitable discoveries that someone in their midst may be behaving in this kind of fashion. If they lean on the power of hierarchy and various types of authority or even personality cults to make these problems “go away” they are compounding may times over the grievousness of the original act.

Given that most of Protestantism is relatively “flat” organizationally speaking, cases of child abuse, when they do occur, usually don’t hide behind a massive cover-up. What’s disconcerting is that the shape of evangelical Protestantism is shifting in North American and may well be taking on features that make it ripe for abusers to hide out in it and exploit it. The trend towards massive churches can only mean more hierarchy, the scores of people on staff at the average megachurch and the rockstar-like quality of those at the top make me worry: How much would the average church worker regard a big name pastor the way an assistant coach would regard Joe Paterno – someone who could not be crossed and whose reputation was paramount. When I look at the star system of evangelical megachurches, when I look at the new fascination with church discipline and Hebrews 13:17 and these new hierarchies, I cannot help but think that North American Protestantism is on very dangerous ground.