The Church of the Happy Valley

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Writing about the Penn State sexual abuse coverup scandal over at, E.D. Kain raises the Catholic church analogy only to dismiss it.

In the Catholic Church, perhaps the worst of the sexual scandal
reported outside of the Irish fiasco took place within the secretive,
almost cult-like, Legion of Christ. At its epicenter was the Legion’s
founder, the now-disgraced Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado. The secrecy
and the cult-like power that Degollado held over his followers made
sexual abuse that much more likely to occur and made his victims and
witnesses to his crimes that much less likely to come forward.

But a sports team is not a cult, and Penn State is not some extreme
religious order tucked away in a far-off country, protected by a
powerful Pope. The head of the program, legendary coach Joe Paterno,
isn’t even a suspect.

But the analogy is worth taking seriously. For we’re not just talking about the normal self-protective crouch that institutions go into when one of their leaders does wrong. Nor just about the financial stakes.

As anyone who has ever visited State College, Pa. knows, Penn State football is a cult, a pilgrimage site complete with shrines and devotees and rituals. You can find similar ones in other university towns, be the institution of higher learning public or private. Among the hierarchs, to be sure, few have ever reached the power and status of the Nittany Lions’ Joe Paterno–the closest thing to a permanent icon in American sports history.

The scandals that regularly arise in such cults tend to be about money–usually having to do with the recruitment and care of the athletes–with sex thrown in when the athletes misbehave. That this one involves protection of an important assistant coach who reportedly liked to rape boys is incidental. The issue has to do with the imperatives governing institutions that are endowed with existential significance, whose success–even survival–depends on maintaining the allegiance of the devotees. Calls for reform–greater transparency and accountability–are all well and good. But at bottom, it is the religious character of these institutions that, again and again, impels them so determinedly to cover up their sins.