Joe Paterno and Bishop Finn
Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and Kansas City bishop Robert Finn share a fate they would not wish on their worst enemies: both stand accused of not reporting the sexual exploitation of children in their respective bailiwicks.
Paterno could lose the job he has held for 45 years before the week is out. For Bishop Finn, the stakes are even higher. He could lose his freedom. A headline last month from U.K.'s Daily Mail says it all, or seems to: "Catholic Bishop becomes most senior U.S. clergyman to be arrested after being charged in child porn cover up."
In both cases, the outraged callers and bloggers wonder how authorities like these could have turned a blind eye to such horrors. They assure themselves that they would have done the right thing, even the heroic thing, and done it pronto. This same impulse has convinced many of us that we would have been the one German to resist Hitler or the one Virginian to challenge slavery.
Bull. Having investigated any number of controversial cases, and gotten to know personally several high-level whistle-blowers, I can assure the Monday morning quarterbacks that at least 95 percent of them are wrong. When faced with an unanticipated quandary, the average citizen will revert to what is culturally comfortable and institutionally appropriate. It is only the heroic few who will make the right call.
Of the two cases, the Penn State case is easily the more egregious. In 1998, a concerned mother called the local police to report that veteran Penn State linebacker coach Jerry Sandusky was showering naked with her son. The authorities met with Sandusky. He promised not to do it again. Case closed.
In 1999, Sandusky retired from Penn State after 32 years with full honors and continued access to the sports facilities. These he would use for himself and for the troubled kids in a nonprofit he founded called "The Second Mile." In 2000, a janitor saw him commit a sex act on a boy at Penn State, told his supervisor, and there the case apparently died.
In 2002, 28-year-old graduate assistant Mike McQueary saw Sandusky having sex with a boy in the shower. Let us call this the "McQueary moment." Talk show callers are sure that they would have directly intervened or at least called the police. McQueary did neither. He called his father, who told him to leave the building.
The senior McQueary informed Paterno the next day in person. Paterno promptly told his athletic director and a senior vice president. They would tell the grand jury that they were under the impression that Sandusky and the boy were merely "horsing around." They have been indicted for perjury. In its collective wisdom, the university banned Sandusky from using the facilities. That was it.
In 2005 and 2006 new allegations came in from parents of Second Mile kids. This prompted the convening of the grand jury. In 2007, the coach of a high school wrestling team with which Sandusky volunteered found him and a 15-year-old boy in a clothed but compromising position and did not report him. When the boy's mother learned of the relationship, she called the principal, who called the police. Apparently, Sandusky and the boy had been involved for more than two years. Sandusky had called him 118 times over that period. Last week, Sandusky was indicted on numerous charges, among them the politically incorrect "deviate sexual intercourse."
In Kansas City, meanwhile, Father Shawn Ratigan was quietly indulging his creepy fetish: taking faceless, crotch-centered photos of unaware little girls. Although he had been warned of "boundary violations" in the past, he had spent six years in the diocese without incident.
In December 2010, all hell broke loose. When Ratigan sent in his personal laptop for repairs, the technician discovered the photos. The girls were clothed saved for one toddler, whose diaper had been pulled away to reveal her genitals. Faced with a McQueary moment, the technician chose not to call the police, but to report it to parish officials. In their moment, the officials called the diocesan office.
Diocesan officials promptly called a police captain on their internal review board and their attorney from a prominent Kansas City law firm. Both the police officer and the captain were appalled, but neither thought the photos constituted pornography, which is narrowly defined in Missouri to mean images showing "sexual conduct, sexual contact, a sexual performance, or sexually explicit conduct."
Knowing that he was busted, Ratigan returned to his home, entered his enclosed garage, wrote a note asking that God forgive him, and, with a rosary in his hand, turned on his motorcycle. There he was found the next morning on the cusp of death. When his condition improved, Bishop Finn sent him to a Pennsylvania psychiatrist who specializes in troubled priests. Ultimately, the doctor concluded that Ratigan was not a pedophile and that his behavior was a result of a previously identified depression.
When Ratigan returned from Pennsylvania, Bishop Finn then assigned him to a Vincentian Mission House in nearby Independence, where several older priests live. In a February 2011 letter, the bishop laid out the formal restrictions, which included no use of a computer unless monitored and the avoidance of "all contact with children."
The bishop, and indeed, everyone involved, underestimated the depth of Ratigan's sickness. Despite the shame, despite the suicide attempt, his compulsion drove him onward. No sooner did he agree to these restrictions than he began to violate them. In May 2011, the diocese alerted Kansas City police of the continued violations.
The Kansas City Star, which had been gunning for the conservative Finn in this historically liberal diocese, began running Pearl Harbor-style headlines and demanding Finn's resignation. An appointed Democratic prosecutor facing re-election launched a grand jury that indicted Finn on a misdemeanor charge of failure to report child abuse. This indictment netted the prosecutor worldwide headlines and fawning coverage in the New York Times.
What contributed to the sluggish response in both these cases is that the authorities were not prepared for the behavior they witnessed. Bishop Finn would likely have handled a case like Sandusky's much more efficiently. The diocese had the infrastructure in place to deal with homosexual relationships between men and boys. The Catholic Church has had some experience with the same. The bishop was not, however, prepared to deal with a fetishist whose female subjects were not obviously endangered by his behavior.
In the secular world of Penn State, where celibacy is obsolete and sin a cultural memory, there had to have been a good deal of confusion as to whether Sandusky's behavior was as evil as it seems from a distance. A week before Finn's indictment and a month before Sandusky's arrest, for instance, director Roman Polanski received a lifetime achievement award and a "10-minute standing ovation" at the Zurich film festival. As the audience knew, Polanski had fled the United States in 1978 after having pled guilty to drugging and anally raping a 7th-grader.
American audiences have proved no more enlightened. The same year that McQueary spotted Sandusky in the shower, Polanksi released The Pianist, for which he received an Oscar in absentia and a standing ovation from the Hollywood worthies.
In 2006, the same year as the Star battled Bishop Finn over stem cell research in Missouri, it waged an unholy war against the re-election bid of Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline. Kline had discovered that the state's abortion clinics were not reporting child rape as required by law and moved to prosecute. So combative was the Star in its successful effort to defeat "the anti-choice extremist" Kline that the national office of Planned Parenthood awarded the paper its top editorial honor, the "Maggie," named after the organization's eugenicist founder, Margaret Sanger.
Finally, there is the issue of institutional solidarity. As I first learned in my investigation of TWA Flight 800 and as was reaffirmed in my inquiry into the authorship of Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, rare are the employees of any organization who will risk their job, their pension, and their good standing among colleagues to defy the will of their institution, let alone blow a whistle on it.
In my experience, alas, among the most timid and easily the most hypocritical of all such employees, especially in this age of shrinking payrolls, are our friends in the media. Go figure.