Joe Paterno

Photo courtesy of Washington Post

The scandal at Penn State has been one of the saddest news stories of the year.  I know some Penn State alumni and even family members of some who have played football there.   Their uniform impression was that the football program at Penn State was a character-building program with high values almost in direct opposition to the media-driven portrayal that followed the accusations.  The picture played out in the press was one that suggested a culture of corruption where even the most heinous of crimes were routinely swept under the rug.  Most of my Penn State friends have been in shock.  Paterno was summarily dismissed for ‘not doing enough.’   I can remember thinking how one decision made almost a decade ago will be remembered more than a lifetime of trying to build a program that had character, true student athletes and could make their university proud.

Actually the existence of a predator in an upstanding program is not all that surprising.  M. Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, noted that evil folks tend to be attracted to places of upstanding values and churches because that is the last place people would think to look for them.  This is the reason that more and more churches perform background checks on everyone who is going to work with children or youth.

I received an email article from “Church Volunteer Central” that the Washington Post was publishing an interview with Joe Paterno.  It was the only one he granted after the scandal and before his death.   In the article I caught a glimpse of the heart of the man.  He said,

“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was.  So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”

The article goes on to point out that “Paterno is accused of no wrongdoing, and in fact authorities have said he fulfilled his legal obligations by reporting to his superiors.”   A friend this last week who deals with these kinds of issues said that Paterno did, in his opinion, exactly what most laws and policies require; he reported that an accusation had been made.  In the days ahead we may find that the rush to judgment in a natural aversion to some apparently hideous crimes may have unfairly hurt someone who did exactly what he was supposed to do.  Our cultural condemnation of Joe Paterno may be more about our own frustration that policies and processes cannot completely eliminate predatory behaviors.  That does not mean we should not steadfastly try, but it is interesting how we can chew up people in our frustration with our own shortcomings.

Oswald Chambers, in the daily reading for January 24 in My Utmost for His Highest challenged me to make sure ‘to look for God.’   I must confess that too often when I am in a position like Joe Paterno found himself in, I too don’t know what to do.  I don’t know if Joe prayed or looked for God or just read the policy manual for Penn State when he didn’t know what to do.  I recognize that all of us reach times when we don’t know what to do.  Those are the times when we need to follow Oswald Chambers’ advise to look for God—or at least His guidance.

In a world where a decision from ten years ago can be brought back up and critiqued to the point where one is relieved of a job before any investigation takes place, I am grateful as well for the promise of a God who says I don’t need to be perfect.  In fact, He invites me to recognize that I am broken.   In looking for God, I hope I (or we) can be people who try to do the right thing even knowing we won’t get it right all the time.  I also hope I can be a part of a people who exhibit and nurture forgiveness.  I’m grateful that God looks at each of us that way and chooses to love us more intently than we’ve ever been loved.

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