Ignore the Man behind the Curtain: Joe Paterno and the Catholic Sex Abuse Crisis

Worthy Adversary
January 23, 2012

Joe Paterno's death last weekend came as a bit of a shock and a huge disappointment. I knew he was sick, but my disappointment did not come from grief. My upset was quite different: The man at the center of the biggest child sex abuse scandal of 2011 is gone, and we will never know exactly what he knew and when he knew it.

Some may say that I am overly critical to demand full truth and disclosure about the past of a man who is gone. As a culture, we are trained to "never speak ill of the dead." In fact, I have been told by more than a few people, "Paterno's gone now. Can't we focus on the good he did?" Some news outlets have even wondered if Paterno died of a broken heart. (If anyone broke Paterno's heart, it was Paterno. And I think that it was his ego, not his heart, that truly suffered. If he had a heart that could break, I think he would have done more to help the kids.)

Paterno's supporters want us to redeem a flawed hero. They want us to honor the outward good deeds while ignoring the destruction that his actions caused.

And that reminded me of something .

In the ten years since the Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal broke, experts such as Tom Doyle have aptly discussed the phenomena of "Bella Figura" (literally beautiful figure or good image). The term describes the desire of the Catholic hierarchy to maintain outward appearances and the best possible presentation, despite the ugliness, crimes and cover-up going on behind the scenes. (Think if it as a global "ignore the man behind the curtain" philosophy.)

In many ways, bella figura has worked well. Catholics still donate money; American presidents still pose for pictures with the Pope; and the US Catholic Church maintains tax-free status. All the while, approximately 100,000 American children have been sexually molested by Catholic clergy and employees with the knowledge and complicity of church officials.

Let's remember, the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic church became a scandal for the same reason that the Penn State crisis became a scandal: the cover-up.

Abuse happens everywhere. But it's the calculated, decades-old cover-up that differentiates the Catholic Church and Penn State from other institutions or organizations that have employed abusers.

But there may be rustling behind the curtain.

Kansas City Slaughterhouse

This leads us to Kansas City. For those of you who don't know, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (for whom I volunteer and to whom I donate) has been under siege. Church lawyers in one case have deposed SNAP executive director David Clohessy and in another subpoenaed thousands of pages of correspondence between the group's leaders and victims of abuse. Church lawyers also subpoenaed the group's correspondence with journalists. You can read coverage here and here. There are a few editorials in support of SNAP here and here.

The church is claiming that SNAP must turn over correspondence with victims who are not public because SNAP, its hotline, correspondence, and confidential support group meetings are not subject to the rape shield laws that protect the thousands of victims and witnesses who contact the group. Why do church attorneys say SNAP is not protected by the law? Because SNAP doesn't have an office. (With this interpretation of the law, therapists who work from home should be darned scared)

It's chilling. Especially since the bishop of Kansas City Robert is currently under criminal indictment for failure to report abuse.

SNAP has nothing to do with either lawsuit, and in one of the cases, has had no contact at all with the victim. The move to draw SNAP into the courtroom is an overt and very public move on the part of the church to bankrupt the group through legal fees.

Bye-Bye Bella Figura

The church has shown its hand. By trying to eviscerate the largest organization that has helped survivors and the leading organization in exposing the cover-up, the bishops have made their point clear: they want victims to go away, survivors to shut up, the press to ignore the story and Catholics to go back to "pay, pray and obey." Church leaders have taken their anti-survivor vitriol out of their lawyers' offices and into the public sphere. Groups that normally would never interject themselves into the argument are now forced to voice their support of SNAP in order to protect the crime victims that they help.

Such vicious anti-victim rhetoric is not very bella figura.

The church has started down a very slippery slope. By forcing SNAP to "out" victims in a case of which SNAP isn't even a party, the church is threatening the privacy shield of rape crisis centers, hotlines, domestic abuse shelters, and thousands of other organizations dedicated to helping crime victims. Plus, they are scaring generations of victims into permanent silence.

And it's not much different in Happy Valley. By choosing to stick up for Joe Paterno's legacy, Paterno's supporters threaten children's safety by making it okay to do the wrong thing. They also kick sand in the face of victims who were so tragically hurt by Jerry Sandusky.

It's time to stick up for victims. All victims.


Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.