What do Penn State Football and Serving in Missions Have in Common?

On November 10, 2011 I wrote about the unfolding Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State. Since then Sandusky was convicted of 45 criminal counts that he sexually abused 10 boys during a 15 year period. The Penn State Board of Trustees had commissioned a report by a Special Investigative Counsel headed by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. Their mission was to investigate the alleged failure of Penn State officials to respond to and report sexual abuse of children that happened at the University, and the circumstances that could allow this abuse to happen in the first place. The report was just released July 12.

If you want a detailed picture of Sandusky’s actions and how they were handled and covered up by University officials, you can read the report here. It has been a big news topic the last few days and many blogs, newspapers and news shows have weighed in with their opinions.This story is close to home for me since I am a Penn State Alumni, and I find several parallels between the culture at Penn State and SIM (Serving in Missions).

The Penn State Football Program had a privileged and holy status.

Penn State football brings an enormous amount of money into the University. I have read that the profit from football in 2009-2010 was $50 million. There is additional revenue to businesses in State College as fans pour in from all over the northeast to fill up Beaver Stadium. There is also the sense of pride and community that football brings to the students and the town, especially in a winning season. But I suspect mostly with the University it is about the money.

Because it is so beneficial to the University, Penn State football has become a sacred institution that enjoys a holy status, with the coaches presiding over it all. On page 106 the report discusses how Sandusky was able to bring his youth football programs to branch campuses without a written contract, because Sandusky was treated as a celebrity and some University employees admired him “like a god.”

On page 17 the report notes that there was a culture of reverence for the football program ingrained at all levels of the campus community.

When a janitor witnessed Sandusky and a boy in the shower stall in what looked like sexual behaviour in the fall of 2000, he decided along with other janitors that if they reported the incident the University would dismiss them all. The janitor told the Investigative Committee that reporting the incident would have been like going against the President of the United States, and the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.

The University Athletic Department was permitted to become a closed community with strong internal loyalty and little influence by outside groups. For example there was little personnel turnover and not much hiring from outside the University.The football program was allowed to opt out of the University’s Clery Act (a federal law requiring all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to disclose information about crime on campus), and sexual abuse awareness trainings.

Page 129 of the report talks about Penn State culture. It states that there is an over-emphasis on “The Penn State Way” as an approach to decision making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives, and an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the University’s reputations as a progressive institution.

Even the University Police Department was not able to act independently as it had to report on its progress to a senior administrator, and in the case of Sandusky the senior administrators stopped the police investigation from moving forward as it should.

Here is the story of Vicky Triponey, a former Penn State employee who clashed with Paterno and other Penn State officials over the discipline of the football players, sometimes after violent offenses. She eventually was forced to leave her job amid harassment by the Penn State community. She describes the culture as clubby, jock-strapping, a sense of entitlement, a cloistered existence.

Missionaries often put up a facade of holiness and enjoy the privilege of their closed mission community.

Now consider the mission community, and the perception of missionaries as people who can do no wrong. Many people outside the mission organization would require a complete paradigm shift to imagine that a missionary would be a child molester or abuser, or would purposefully cover up the crimes of another missionary. Yet those of us who grew up on the mission field know that missionaries are very human indeed with all of the frailties and shortcomings of other people. We know that there have been child molesters on the staff of many missions, and we know first hand that there were/are abusive staff members taking care of children at mission boarding schools, including SIM schools.These people were/are never turned over to law enforcement, but just transferred to other duties or sent home. Missionaries are allowed to get away with things that “normal” people would be prosecuted for.

Why do missions protect their workers and shield them from the law when they commit crimes? I believe it is for the same reasons that the Penn State officials covered up Sandusky’s crimes. They do not want to sully their reputation, because that would mean a loss of money.

Missionaries on the field have gone to great lengths to cultivate their image as sinless, blameless, one step above the people they are there to serve.This was evident at Kent Academy when MKs were warned not to talk about abuse occurring in the boys dorm, because it would ruin the mission’s reputation if Nigerians found out about it.

Some missionaries and MKs will vehemently deny any suggestions that they might be weak or sinful. Just look at the Spring of 2012 issue of Simroots, and the aggressive responses to Michele Phoenix’s article The Lies MKs Believe.The two MKs who responded were very quick to distance themselves from any hint that missionaries might be behaving badly, and to say that Ms Phoenix’s experiences are unique to her and to leave the rest of us MK’s out of it!

SIM’s first response to a recent case was to investigate it using their own people. They do not want any information leaking out to the general public. When they do go for an independent investigation, it is not completely independent because they are still using the resources of other missions who are sympathetic to their cause, and they still set up their terms up front on how everything is going to be handled, particularly agreements of confidentiality by the victim.

There is a lack of concern for the victims of abuse.

The Freeh Report notes a striking lack of empathy for child abuse victims by the most senior leaders of the University. Again and again as they dealt with reports of abuse by Sandusky, these top officials covered their tracks and shut off the flow of information. They even discussed how to treat Sandusky humanely. Never did they ask about the welfare of the victims.

I have noticed a similar lack of empathy at the top levels of SIM for adult victims of abuse on the mission field. Only one person, Larry Fehl, has publicly expressed apology or remorse on behalf of SIM, and I have read that his statement had to get the approval of the Board prior to release. I have never heard an apology or remorse from anyone who actually committed the abuse. There is reason to believe they have even advised an abuser not to have any contact with the victim.

Since Larry Fehl left a position where he could do something about it, there has not been a single program or outreach to abused MKs. Rather there is a calculated silence and failure to respond even when they are confronted point blank with allegations of abuse. I have seen them close ranks around an accused abuser, while ignoring the victim, just the way the officials at Penn State behaved.

The good that an organization does will not outweigh the abuse committed by its members.

The Penn State community is discovering that even though the football program and Joe Paterno had a positive impact on many lives for many years, it does not justify the pain and hurt that happened to these 10 boys, and possibly other victims we don’t know about. This is a lesson that missions, including SIM, are slow to learn.  .


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