What the Church Must Learn from the Penn State Scandal

November 15th, 2011

Wednesday night the Penn State University board of trustees announced the termination, effective immediately, of the school’s head football coach Joe Paterno and president Graham Spanier.

The board acted in response to the recent indictment of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant coach, on 40 counts of sex crimes against minors. Sandusky allegedly assaulted at least one of his victims in the showers of the Lasch Football building on the Penn State campus in 2002. Current wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, then a graduate assistant with the program, witnessed the incident to Coach Paterno. Paterno passed on the information to athletic director Tim Curley.

After that, not much happened. Sandusky, who retired abruptly from his job as defensive coordinator in 1999, retained emeritus status at the university and access to school facilities. He was seen on campus as recently as last week. (You can read the grand jury presentment here.)

Because Joe Paterno is the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history, a two-time national champion, and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the story of the Sandusky indictment and investigation quickly became a story about Paterno and Penn State football. Wednesday night as hundreds of Penn State students swarmed the streets of State College, Pennsylvania to protest the ouster of their iconic football coach, media outlets were paying little attention to The Second Mile, a non-profit organization that Sandusky founded in 1977 to assist and empower children and youth in Pennsylvania.

Last Sunday, as news of Sandusky’s indictment spread, The Second Mile issued a statement saying, “To our knowledge, all the alleged incidents occurred outside of our programs and events.” But at least six of the eight victims mentioned in the grand jury report were Second Mile participants who met Sandusky through the organization. Curley told the grand jury that he informed The Second Mile of the 2002 incident. Yet Sandusky continued his involvement in The Second Mile until 2008.

The Second Mile, which began as a small charity in State College, now has seven chapters and serves children, youth, and families throughout the state of Pennsylvania. The organization operates a leadership institute and a program that pairs school children with college-aged mentors, provides counseling for at-risk youth, and trains parents and professionals to better meet young people’s needs. 

We can assume that the majority of the staff and volunteers who have worked for The Second Mile have a genuine interest in improving the lives of young people. But the organization’s work and reputation will from now on be compromised because of The Second Mile’s failure to prevent and stop child sexual abuse.

Sadly, the church is no stranger to child sex abuse scandals. While incidents involving Roman Catholic clergy have made headlines around the world, the sexual assault of minors by adults in positions of authority has never been just a Catholic problem. Incidents of child sex abuse and subsequent failures to deal with these incidents have occurred in churches in every major religious tradition, as well as in public and private schools, scouting groups, and youth sports programs. No institution is immune to this sort of activity.

For this reason, every news story about child abuse must serve as a reminder of the responsibility we have to the children in our care. In the church this means doing everything in our power to ensure that our children’s and youth ministries are safe and that we take all allegations seriously and deal with them immediately. We must adopt policies that eliminate situations in which young people are vulnerable and procedures for properly dealing with any reports of abuse.

Many churches already have implemented exhaustive safety programs. The United Methodist Church, for example, equips congregations to implement the Safe Sanctuaries program by evaluating their current safety standards, writing and adopting a Safe Sanctuary policy, and training all adults who work with children and youth (whether staff or volunteer) on policy and procedure.

Policies vary according to a congregation’s setting and ministries, but there are some common rules that all churches (and, for that matter, all organizations that serve children and youth) should adhere to. These include:

  • Requiring that two unrelated adults be present with children or youth at all times
  • Prohibiting adults from being alone with a child or youth in a car or bathroom
  • Not allowing adults and children or youth to meet behind closed doors in a room without windows
  • Requiring adults meeting with youth one-on-one to be in an open space where other adults are present
  • Running background checks on all staff or volunteers who work with children or youth
  • Imposing a waiting period for adults wishing to work with children and teens (i.e. requiring volunteers to be members of the church for 6 months before serving)

These rules can seem cumbersome. And we may fear that such policies convey a “we don’t trust you” message to members of our churches. But they’re necessary.

Every person in a congregation who works with children or youth (or even vulnerable adults) needs to be familiar with the church’s safety policy and needs to know what to do if he or she witnesses an incident or hears an allegation. And the rules must apply to everyone, all the time. It doesn’t matter if the leader of a junior high small group is the parent of one of the kids in the group; that group still needs a second adult. It doesn’t matter that an adult mentor is a longtime family friend of the teen he or she is mentoring; the two of them cannot meet behind closed doors.

If, despite all of the measures to ensure safety, something does happen, the church must deal with it immediately. The more we learn about the Sandusky case, the more it becomes clear that he could have been stopped a long time ago if people had taken the allegations seriously and dealt with them properly.

The church has a God-given responsibility to teach and nurture young people, to introduce them to Christ and surround them with love. We can only fulfill this calling if we can keep the children and youth in our care safe.

Josh Tinley is a curriculum editor for Abingdon Press and the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports.

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