Penn State and Catholic Church Child Sex-Abuse Trials Divide Penn. Public

The sex-abuse trials of Msgr. William Lynn and former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky are revealing deep differences among those who once revered both men, writes Marci Hamilton.

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

It’s been a bad year for Pennsylvania’s most revered institutions. Well-known members of both Penn State University and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia have been charged with committing or covering up the sexual abuse of children. Just as the unprecedented, months-long trial of Monsignor William Lynn is finishing, Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky is getting ready to face a jury—and each case raises the same core issue: How is an important figure at a high-profile institution able to abuse not one, but a series of children, and not be stopped?

In both cases, public reaction has divided in two, as Penn State fans and Pennsylvania Catholics experience a blend of betrayal, anger, and confusion. Everyone trusted these men.

(Full disclosure: I’m a Penn State graduate, I’m married to a lifelong Philly Catholic, and I serve as co-counsel to victims of both the Philadelphia priests and of Jerry Sandusky—although my clients are not involved in the criminal trials, so I am not subject to the gag orders.)

For three months, Philadelphia prosecutors have been trying Msgr. Lynn on charges that he deliberately and callously endangered children by letting predator priests continue in the ministry.

Lynn’s defense is that he had no power, that he “did as much as I could.” In this he sounds like the consummate company man, the Babbitt of the Catholic Church. Whatever he says must be right if it is in the service of the organization.

His fate, which will soon be considered by a jury, is likely to include prison time, which would be a first for a member of the Catholic hierarchy, and for it to happen in Philadelphia—where people routinely identify themselves according to the nearest parish—is almost as unthinkable as the implosion of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The response of local Catholics seems to depend as much as anything on their age. And with each passing week in the trial, the generational split is more obvious.

Some, mostly older believers refuse to read the publicly available grand-jury reports, and simply cannot absorb what prosecutors are saying. For them, doing whatever the institution required is a good in itself, regardless of collateral damage. They are the ones who listen to the likes of the ill-tempered Bill Donohue at the Catholic League, who labels any criticism of the Church as an “anti-Catholic rant.”

In contrast, for many younger Catholics, the hierarchy and Lynn are traitors to the faith. Where these Catholics once saw spiritual leaders they now see corrupt men who treated the abuse of children with the same attention given to a broken air conditioner. Their sins are unforgivable, and their disregard of the children is an abomination.

Some of these Catholics have started groups to express their moral outrage at their own bishops. Others have become Episcopalian, while many have walked away from organized religion altogether.

Meanwhile in Happy Valley, Penn State students and alumni, like Philly Catholics, have split into camps over the impending Sandusky trial, which is scheduled to begin June 5. When the school’s sacrosanct head coach, Joe Paterno, was fired for his anemic and bureaucratic response to reports of Sandusky’s behavior, some students rioted angrily. It was the most unseemly behavior on campus that anyone could remember, and the opposite of the way JoePa would have acted. However he may have failed in handling the Sandusky affair, he was the epitome of calm in the face of difficult challenges.

Other Penn State students and alumni started a fund for charities that serve child-abuse victims, held candlelight vigils for the survivors, and have demanded that the university make the protection of children a priority. Their actions have made them feel better about the future, but even with their good works, their previous adoration for the institution must now feel more like a naïve first love.

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For the rioters and a number of alumni, however, Paterno seemed almost as much of a victim as, well, Sandusky’s victims. Like the elderly Catholics, they want their comforting past restored now, and won’t let go without a fight.

If you have been watching the Lynn trial, this characterization of Paterno as victim is strained. He was a detail-oriented man in charge of an enormous program, and he took great public pride in his insistence on character and values. Whatever he knew and whenever he knew it, it was enough to justify his removal, if for no other reason than that he had not lived up to his own high standards. Indeed, he said, “I wish I had done more.” Those lionizing him have ignored that admission of responsibility, however late and incomplete it may have felt to the real victims’ families.

In the end, both cases exude a fundamental sense of grown mens’ hard-heartedness toward suffering children that defies what we believed about these institutions for so long. It is a haunting reminder of the unavoidability of human failure, and our struggle coming to terms with that.

Everyone trusted these men, but now we have to be on our guard.