“There is no God but God” -from the Pillars of Islam
This is just a quick sample of some of the status updates I read the day Jerry Sandusky was convicted of multiple counts of child sex abuse:
“Sandusky, you can rot in hell.”
“May Sandusky rot in hell”
” Just looking at him makes me sick!”
These sentiments are of course, for all their vitriol, perfectly understandable. They are not measured nuanced responses to the Sandusky verdict. Measured nuanced responses to someone as chillingly fiendish as Jerry Sandusky would hardly be human responses. They were all made by friends or friends of friends, all made by people I know to be decent kind-hearted and loving, people who do not typically go around telling other people to rot in hell.
Their reactions are natural. Frankly, their reactions were shared by this blogger.
I only hope that our righteous rage does not begin and end with such visceral screams to the universe.
Condemning Jerry Sandusky is natural. Condemning Jerry Sandusky is the only right reaction, and rarely will you encounter a situation in which there is only one right reaction.
Condemning Jerry Sandusky is also very easy. It is like saying you thought the Third Reich was bad. No kidding. Condemning horror is a snap. Preventing horror is much much harder. That requires hard work and profound changes in attitudes and outlooks. There is less of a rush to do that.
Jerry Sandusky is a savage brute of a child rapist. The evil he did is squarely on him.
The circumstances that allow for the Jerry Sanduskys of the world to hunt how and where they do is a different matter. That’s on us. That’s on all of us. All the glib “rot in hells” in the world won’t excuse us from that.
Jerry Sandusky. John Geoghan. God only knows how many others. If only it was simple a matter of hunting down the beasts and putting them in cages. That would be a lot easier to take. It’s not remotely that simple. Jerry Sandusky and John Geoghan and God only knows how many others don’t do what they do without help. They don’t ruin hundreds of lives over the course of decades unless they are allowed to do so. We allow them to do so.
It really goes back to what I learned around the fourth grade or so at St. Boniface Martyr School in Sea Cliff, New York. That’s when we learned about the Ten Commandments in religion class. As soon as you hit the first one, you hit the problem connected to Jerry Sandusky and those like him.
I am the Lord your God. I brought you out of slavery. You shall have no gods except me.
Bringing the Ten Commandments into this discussion, especially that first one, may be tough to take if you don’t adhere to one of the major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). You may have stopped reading right there, thinking this could have nothing to do with you. But the vile career of the likes of Jerry Sandusky shows that even an atheist has reason to value the First Commandment.
Let’s review it again then for religious and non-relgious alike. There is only one God. At most. One. There are a myriad of ideas as to exactly who and what God is or even if he is. I have my own and admittedly I struggle with them and revise them from time to time. Through all those struggles and revisions I can at least confidently say who and what God is not.
He’s not Joe Paterno. He’s not Bernard Law. He’s not some cowardly college administrator or solipsistic bishop. He’s not anyone who puts anything, least of all alumni donations or his own reputation or the reputation of his Church ahead of the lives of little children. Man alive, little children!
He’s not college football. College is football is wonderful and joyous and has the capacity to do good. Even with all that, college football is not God.
He’s not the Catholic Church itself. The Catholic Church is now and always has been my primary means of coming to know God. The good it has done and continues to do is incalculable. I truly believe it is guided the Holy Spirit. Even with all of that, the Church is not God.
Only God is God. As such there is a level of deference and reverence that God is due that absolutely nothing and no one else deserves. When I kneel during Mass, I kneel to the Eucharist, to Christ Himself. I kneel to no one else, to no priest, no matter how holy (as so very many of them are).
If I as a practicing Catholic refuse to give godly reverence to a bishop or priest, how much less deserving must some football coach be, must some college be, must some athletic program be, no matter how storied they all are?
It is important to note that just because human institutions like Penn State football and the Catholic Church are not due godly reverence, it does not mean they are due no reverence. If you’re a football player and/or a student at Penn State, or even an athletic coach or administrator, you are not necessarily a bad person. If you are a bishop or priest and/or a practicing Catholic, you are not necessarily a bad person. Not everyone at Penn State is evil. Nor is every bishop and priest and Catholic evil. There’s no need to hate college football or Penn State or religion or the Church over even something as profoundly sinister as these child sex abuse scandals. Anger is understandable. Criticism is appropriate. Blanket hatred will help nothing.
On the other hand, blanket trust is downright dangerous.
There’s nothing disrespectful or hateful about insisting on reasonable safeguards. There are mechanisms, imperfect but not ineffective, that can help prevent predators from feeding on the souls of our young. CORI reports. Rigorous reference checks. Frequent performance reviews and evaluations. Making sure children are not alone with any one adult or making sure the door to the classroom or the coach’s office or the sacristy stays open. Reviewing from top to bottom how we go about training and selecting our coaches, priests, teachers, anyone who comes into contact with children. Those are all tools that can be brought to bear against those who prowl for prey amongst the innocent and the helpless.
Here’s the trick: you have to be willing to do it. You have to be willing to melt down the golden calf and put away the false gods. Nothing can ever be okay just because some famous football coach says so. Nothing can ever be okay just because the bishop says so or Father says so. They need to earn your trust like everybody else. They need to have that trust verified regularly. Nobody gets a pass because of a winning record or a Roman collar. You shall have no gods before me. So says the Lord. Even if you don’t think there is a Lord, allowing for any false gods is taking a risk we simply cannot afford to take. To put any human being, no matter how apparently virtuous, equal with heaven is all but ushering the wolf into the fold.
We’ve seen it happen again and again. The cost of our idol worship has been incalculable. No more. The halos have to ripped off of heads. These are just human beings. Human beings are good in what I genuinely believe to be an overwhelming majority. Human beings can still act in ways that would take away the breath of the devil himself. We are therefore required to be vigilant. Reasonably vigilant, respectfully vigilant, but fiercely and unrelentingly vigilant. If we’re not, Jerry Sandusky and John Geoghan rise again because we allowed it. Allowed it by worshiping those who did not warrant it. Allowed it by forgetting the First Commandment.
It is an act of profound piety and peaceful wisdom to say “I will leave this in God’s hands.” It is an act of profound negligence and foolhardiness to say “I will leave this in the hands of a fallible human being.” Although he meant it in a context far less grim than the one discussed here, the great American humorist Jean Shepherd said it well with the title of perhaps his finest work:
In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.