Penn State and the Church

Editorial from our Nov. 20 issue.

(photo: Wikipedia)

When a grand jury indicted a former Penn State football assistant coach on eight counts of child sexual abuse, and also charged a university official with neglecting to report allegations, media coverage linked the news to the Church’s failures to protect the innocent.

A Reuters story noted that “details of the case are similar to the sweeping scandals involving sexual abuse by priests the Catholic Church tried to keep hidden for decades.” The implication in that story and elsewhere was that Penn State, like the Church, set aside credible reports of criminal conduct to protect the institution from public embarrassment and financial repercussions.

But there’s another way to establish a connection between the Church’s struggle to protect minors and the Penn State crisis. The unstated link is that media reporting of the trauma endured by victims of clergy abuse has sensitized the entire culture to the devastating impact of such crimes, whether perpetrated by priests, coaches or parents.

That has not always been the case. Indeed, in the wake of the sexual revolution, the moral taboos and legal penalties established to prevent and punish such behavior have been challenged repeatedly — a campaign that rarely generated public attention.

In 1998, the Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association, provided “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples,” which argued that the “negative effects were neither pervasive nor typically intense.”

The study’s authors proposed that it was time to re-think the subject, and perhaps “a willing encounter with positive reactions” should be characterized as “simply adult-child sex.”

As Mary Eberstadt reported in a 2009 First Things article, “How Pedophilia Lost Its Cool,” the Psychological Bulletin study signaled that a reassessment of taboos against adult-child sex was under way in elite circles in the United States and abroad.

But as Eberstadt also noted, this trend — unlike many similar social currents that resulted in loosened restrictions on sexual conduct — soon lost traction.

Eberstadt wrote her article shortly after the celebrated filmmaker Roman Polanski successfully resisted extradition to the U.S. to face charges of child rape. While the director’s defenders in Europe and Hollywood criticized the effort to bring him to justice, the U.S. media generally opposed any attempt to let him off the hook.

The intensive coverage of the clergy abuse scandal had a lot to do with the reversal of a dangerous trend, in Eberstadt’s judgment. And today, Americans understand the damage caused by adult sexual predators. Institutions that ignore victims and protect the guilty must pay the penalty.

But there’s no time for complacency.

Just this fall, the BBC sci-fi drama Torchwood added a new character — a pedophile, played by Bill Pullman, the straight arrow once cast as the U.S. president in the blockbuster film Independence Day.

Pullman told a reporter that he was cast because the show’s producers believed a clean-cut predator would “destabilize viewers.”

A show that makes a pedophile likeable?

In the wake of coach Joe Paterno’s exit (as well as the university’s president), The Wall Street Journal noted with “relief” that “in a culture as libertine as ours at least some behavior — sexual exploitation of children — is still considered deviant.”

We must do our utmost to keep it that way.