I’m a huge college football fan, and I went to bed on Saturday night thinking that I’d watched the biggest college football event of the season–the “Game of the Century” between #1 LSU and #2 Alabama.
I didn’t know it then, but that was not even the biggest college football event of the week. Since Saturday, talk of the national championship race and the rumors about conference realignment which have dominated sports headlines this season have been muted by a story that is truly tragic.
Last night, the career of the winningest coach in in Division I college football history, Penn State’s Joe Paterno, was brought to an end because of a sin of omission. He was fired for his silence.
You’ve probably heard the story already. In 2002, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant who is now the receivers coach at Penn State, observed a former assistant coach and professor emeritus, Jerry Sandusky, forcing a young boy into a sexual act in the school’s football locker room showers. McQueary reported the incident to Coach Paterno, and Coach Paterno reported it to his superiors, athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president Gary Schultz. No one reported the incident to the authorities. Sandusky, at the time, ran a non-profit organization for boys. He brought the boys onto the Penn State campus when he was a coach; he continued to do so even after his own retirement from Penn State’s coaching staff; and he continued to do so after the report reached university officials.
Sandusky’s actions finally came into public view on Saturday when he was arrested and charged with 40 felony counts of sexual abuse involving young boys. Curly and Shultz were also arrested and charged with failure to report the abuse and with perjury. The Pennsylvania grand jury confirmed that both Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier also had knowledge of the 2002 report of abuse and never contacted the police. Even though those two men are not under investigation, their firing was inevitable once the facts became known. Both men had credible knowledge that at least one young boy had been sexually abused, and neither did anything effective to stop it.
Why would anyone cover-up such an act? Why wouldn’t justice be pursued to the end? If the allegations are found to be true, how could it be that a prestigious institution like Penn State harbor a serial child sex abuser? Is there any room for compassion for Jerry Sandusky or Coach Paterno and the Penn State officials? What is keeping this from happening at our school or church? I can’t speak to the motives behind the silence of the Penn State officials, but I can speak to two temptations that Christian leaders face when confronted with these types of situations:
- Legal requirements and policies put us off, so we’re tempted to ignore them. As Christian leaders, we have a redemptive mission–one that seeks to help life and forgiveness to flourish. Policies and legal requirements put us off, because they are necessarily restrictive. They aren’t inherently life-giving. However, we must see their God-given role in exposing sin (Romans 7) and restraining evil (Romans 13). Anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect is a mandatory reporter, and they must report immediately. Neither fear of making a false accusation nor an arrogant thought that the church can do a better job investigating the incident than the authorities should lead us to disobey the law and put the children in our care at risk. “The government does not bear the sword for nothing.” As one Christian leader wrote earlier today, “Waiting for further information allows a predator to continue and puts children at risk.” At SojournKids, we use this checklist to train all of our children’s ministry servants on Abuse Reporting Policies. If you don’t have something like this, please feel free to adapt it for your ministry (and follow it).
- We’re tempted to think that following our legal responsibility is enough. But following the law shouldn’t keep us from acting in a redemptive way as the church. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul makes clear that those who continue to hide in sin will not enter God’s kingdom. In his list of offenders, Paul includes those who would today fit the category of “sexual offenders.” Then, he says, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” We hope that this is an accurate description of our church as well. We want Sojourn to be a place where sinners can come out of hiding and find a new identity—not in “what you were” but in “what you have become” in Christ Jesus. It is a great joy and privilege to shepherd and care for every person that the Lord sends our way. Like the prodigal son’s father, our desire is to welcome with joy men and women who turn away from their sins. Here is a policy that guides how our church responds and cares for a “registered sex offender.” Developing and adopting policies like this one gives our leadership team a unified plan for helping individuals in special cases. An individual’s willingness to submit to the policy shows us whether or not their heart is repentant, teachable, and able to receive gospel care.
What happened at Penn State is a terrible tragedy, but what is to keep it from happening in your ministry? If it did, how would you minisister to the victims? How would you minister to the offender? Please take time to read through the policies I’ve attached above, and adapt them for your ministry setting. My prayer is that the Lord would use the tragedy at Penn State to make every ministry more prepared.