Penn State, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Boy Scouts of America are three of the biggest institutions on the American landscape.
Penn State was once one of the unquestioned holders of the holy grail of football fandom and higher education. The Catholic Church was the moral watchdog and shepherd of its worshipful churchgoers’ children.
And the Boy Scouts of America taught its young woodsmen to earn their way to responsible adulthood one merit badge at a time.
But the core mission of each one of these American icons came completely unglued. Children were assaulted by a Penn State football coach and the school’s administrators, who knew about it, did nothing. Roman Catholic priests who assaulted children were routinely shuffled from town to town by bishops working hard to keep them one step ahead of the law. And now we’ve learned that the Boy Scouts of America had volumes of files on child predators in its ranks whom the organization refused to prosecute.
Such large-scale criminal behavior wouldn’t be any less terrible if it was the work of gangsters and career criminals. It would simply be easier to connect the dots, to understand how it could happen. But this wasn’t the work of gangsters. It was the work of educated, intelligent, experienced professionals working across a broad range of academia, religion and public service.
In each instance, these professionals in leadership roles of large and powerful institutions made stunning decisions. They all made conscious, deliberate choices to place the success of their careersabove that of the safety and well-being of the children and teenagers their respective institutions served.
When it was just the Catholic Church which was grabbing the headlines, it was easy to condemn the single institution and stop there. But now it’s not so easy. It seems it’s not the particular institution which is the problem at all. Rather, the problem seems to be a combination of a place where the innocent can be exploited and the lack of a functional moral compass on behalf of those charged with overseeing that place, all on a very grand scale.
Punishment of those caught doing the actual crimes isn’t the whole answer to stopping this level of wrongdoing. The American justice system isn’t good at punishing the kinds of crimes which drag large institutional interests into court.
Priests were hauled before the judge by the bushel once the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church began to break, but it took years to make any substantial headway in actually prosecuting the bishops who hid them out. The Penn State football coach who did the crimes has been tried and sentenced, but the football team is already back on the field, and the cases against administrators and school leaders are no longer grabbing headlines. And it will be a test of the legal system to see what comes forth from the revealed bushels of once-secret lists of suspected and accused pedophile Boy Scout leaders.
There is no magical solution to stopping any and all crimes against children. One important thing is to make sure that parents are educated about how predators work. Another is to make sure that there is no readily available and unmonitored place for those who seek to harm children to do so. But it’s not just a question of educating parents.
Nor is it simply a question of more and fiercer prosecution. The answer has to run deeper than simply hauling the next predator into court with his shirt pulled up over his face in shame.
There has to be a way to better educate not only parents, or stepping up prosecutions. We need to find a way to make sure that our religious leaders and school administrators have no confusion about whether it’s a better career move to hide a child predator than it is to turn one in.
Bill Donovan writes regularly for The Advocate. Feedback is welcome at email@example.com.