It is difficult to imagine a response to the Penn State child abuse situation that does not leave one horrified.
At this point, many details remain to be unearthed, but both the Penn State president and its legendary football coach — Joe Paterno — have been fired. More than one of the actors in this sordid play — including Paterno — have “lawyered up” and are not answering questions about their involvement. Penn State students rioted following the revelations, possibly in response to the university’s decision to fire the president and coach.
It is reported that one-time assistant coach Gerald Sandusky was caught in the act abusing a young boy in a campus locker room. The eyewitness reported the matter to his superior, and indications are that those who knew and were required to do so followed the reporting requirements of the university. However, no one seems to have notified police. Additionally — and perhaps most inexcusably — no one attempted to stop Sandusky or prevent the act that was witnessed. Furthermore, no one barred Sandusky’s access to campus locker rooms, showers, and the young boys he enjoyed abusing there.
Since the allegations against Sandusky first came to light, other victims have come forward to claim that they, too, were abused by Sandusky.
The Penn State revelations came soon after initial allegations of inappropriate conduct by presidential candidate Herman Cain. I previously questioned the motive of the adult women raising the Cain allegations for the first time against the now presidential candidate. What is different about the Penn State victims now coming forward?
First, unlike the allegations raised against Herman Cain, there appears to be very real physical harm committed against the Penn State victims: sexual abuse by an adult male against a male child. Second, the Penn State perpetrators did not ascend to prominence only recently: Joe Paterno has been famous for decades, and his assistant coaches have been known, too. No one in the Penn State matter has achieved a new level of prominence that prompted the revelation of prior perfidy. Third, the nature of the alleged abuse would have prevented the victims’ ability to respond appropriately: an adult woman reporting unwanted sexual advances is quite different from a child reporting actual rape by those who are charged with protecting him.
My question regarding the Herman Cain scenario was how a pastor should counsel the women if they came to him for advice. How, then, should a pastor counsel the abused boys and their families in the Penn State matter? Victims of sexual abuse are not required to report or publicize the crime. If, through private godly counsel and the practice of Christian forgiveness a victim has spiritually and mentally left the event behind, it is possible that it need not be raised.
But what of the issues of righteousness and justice? An individual victim might legitimately decide not to bring attention to prior wrong he has overcome. Yet the fact remains that the perpetrators and those who helped cover up a crime have abused their authority, have betrayed their trust, and should not continue in the same positions of responsibility they occupied at the time of their abdication.
Many are tempted to frame their outrage over the abuse of children at Penn State in terms of punishing perpetrators “for the victims.” Society certainly has an interest in punishing criminals and stripping authority from those who abuse it. Those who claim the name “Christian” should certainly recognize our obligation to maintain the prophetic voice against such abuses of authority toward the weak and powerless, as well as to call for the proper use of government’s “sword”.
Our system of laws is designed in part to prevent individuals from taking their own revenge. But it is all too easy to take revenge vicariously, as if the only way for a victim to be made whole is for society to extract its proverbial pound of flesh from the perpetrator. This is as much a denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ as is denying our obligation under God to mete out just punishment for crimes.