Over the last few weeks, Pennsylvania and the nation have been transfixed and troubled by the trials of Jerry Sandusky and Monsignor William Lynn.
The connections between the trials are clear. Both concern sexual abuse: In one the alleged abuser is on trial; in the other, the man on trial is accused of allowing abuse to continue. Both trials reveal how institutions responded more sensitively to the alleged abusers than to the victims.
Both trials also force us to reflect on the difference between moral cowardice and moral courage.
In the Sandusky trial, prosecution witnesses painted a portrait of a cunning abuser. But if victims felt trapped by the abuse, surely those who knew about it should have done something. One victim mentioned going to the authorities who wouldn’t believe him because Sandusky “had a heart of gold.” A janitor who claimed to have witnessed abusive behavior did not tell the authorities, nor did Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary — even after seeing Sandusky with a boy in the shower.
McQueary went instead to his father, and then to coach Joe Paterno, who reportedly relayed information to other Penn State authorities. While it is still unclear what McQueary told Paterno, and what Paterno told others, perjury charges have been brought against Penn State’s former Athletic Director and its past Vice-President for Finance. According to emails recently uncovered in an investigation by Louis Freeh, Penn State officials agreed that it would be “humane” not to report Sandusky to authorities.
Administrative cover-up and complicity in sexual abuse are the central issues in the trial of Monsignor William Lynn. As secretary of clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, it was Lynn’s job to oversee assignments of priests and abuse investigations. In 1994, Lynn prepared a list of 35 priests who had credible allegations of abuse against them. Copies of the list were allegedly ordered shredded by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua—but one was eventually discovered in a diocesan safe that had to be drilled open.
The prosecution maintains that Msgr. Lynn is guilty of child endangerment and conspiracy for not removing two priests and for protecting another. In his defense, Lynn’s attorney has emphasized how the real authority lay with Cardinal Bevilacqua, who died in January. With this “dark side of the church” now revealed, his defense attorney maintains that Msgr. Lynn is being held accountable for the very “evil” he tried to “heal.”
In both trials, there can be no mistake about what constitutes sexual abuse. But both trials raise difficult questions about how to assign guilt for failure to act on allegations of sexual abuse.
Both Penn State and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had strong incentives to keep talk of abuse quiet — reputations were at stake, after all. Both also had strong personalities at the top of their institutional hierarchies: whether it was the coach or the cardinal, there was someone up above who had more power, and more responsibility.
How do we talk about moral culpability in these contexts? Where is the line between moral cowardice and moral courage?
Most of us would say: we know the line when we see it. The line is clear when you see a man raping a boy in a shower and you do nothing to stop it; the line is clear when you know about an abusive priest who has been reassigned. In those cases, it is cowardly to defer to those in authority; moral courage is the strength to put aside concerns about one’s own comfort and security in order to do what’s right.
But if we can see the line clearly in instances of child rape, how clearly do we see the line in other contexts? How many of us can say that we have never turned away from the afflicted because it was simply easier to do so? How many of us can say that we have never let fear of power override the demands of conscience? With regard to the Lynn case, Commonweal’s Paul Moses raises the troubling question “what if Msgr. Lynn is right?” in order to probe the psychological and moral complexities of deciding whether to work within the system, or outside of it.
In Penn State and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia we now know that the system failed. As a society, we can apportion blame and accountability through criminal proceedings. But that is only part of a larger and often more difficult process of reform and reconciliation.
At Penn State, this process has just begun and waits for the findings of an internal investigation. In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Caput has thus far moved much more decisively than his predecessors in dealing with allegations of clerical sexual abuse.
But perhaps a fuller view of what reform and reconciliation might look like is emerging in Ireland. In preparing for the 50th InternationalEucharistic Congress, Cardinal Marc Ouellet went on a penitential pilgrimage to Lough Derg. By walking barefoot and fasting, Cardinal Ouellet was undertaking penance and making reparation on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy. In his homily at Lough Derg, Ouellet asked for forgiveness from the victims. Nowhere in evidence were the defensiveness and evasion that have so often characterized the Catholic church’s approach to clerical sexual abuse. Cardinal Ouellet’s efforts have been appropriately called “ a gesture,” for they are only a beginning. But honestly acknowledging moral cowardice can lead us to a fuller understanding of what moral courage can and does mean--both in extreme circumstances and in the normal, often unexamined, course of our daily lives
Mathew N. Schmalz teaches religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
MORE FROM ON FAITH: