Friday, November 11, 2011

Has God Ever Been to State College, PA?

As much as I love sports, I have never been one to think that God cares, let alone pulls for one team over the other.  This position found me in hot water with one church member who used to call me during every UGA game insisting that every good play for the Dawgs was an answer to one of her prayers.  Sorry,  I just think God has more important things which garner God's attention than what happens on the playing field, court, or locker room.  That was until this week.

The first time I heard the name Joe Paterno I was just days from turning 13 years old – roughly the same age of victims 1, 3, 4, and 8 as described in the Grand Jury report.  It was January 1, 1983 and UGA was playing Penn State for the National Championship.  Penn State won that game and I remember clearly watching, which would prove to be Herschel Walker’s last time wearing red, black and silver, sitting on the den floor of my father’s apartment. 

As a kid whose team was just defeated, I swore never to like Paterno and Penn State again.  Of course as I grew older, I could not help but appreciate what he achieved on and off the field:  Coaching at the age of 84, more wins than any other Division I coach, the testimony of his former players and colleagues who always spoke of Joe Pa doing things “the right way” and with integrity.  This of course was in relation to his recruiting and coaching practices.  In a system known for its abuses, shady deals, and “plantation mentality,” the football program of Penn State was always proven to be above reproach, respected and trusted across the country.  That was until this week.

I am not naïve.  I am fully aware that in order for Paterno to survive this long as head coach, he obviously wielded great power.  He outlived university trustees and presidents.  In fact, he helped choose some and is very close friends with some of the very people who fired him earlier this week.  The events of this past week have pulled back the thin veil to the ways in which power and trust are abused.

I have taken the revelations of this week very personally.  I am a rabid fan of college football. It is no secret I live for Saturdays from September through January. Most importantly however, I am a parent – a parent of a 10 year old boy – roughly the same age as victims 2, 5, 6, and 7 when they were abused by Mr. Sandusky. I have been awaked more than once this past week by nightmares of that being MY son in the shower being subjected to the types of abuses included in the Grand Jury report. I am a person, much like these coaches and other university employees, whose vocation puts me in a special place of sacred trust – a trust never to be violated – when it comes to the care and protection of children.  There is another reason this week’s events are so personal: a former member of my close family was a pedophile who abused and molested teenage boys.

I speak in the past tense because he is now deceased.  He was a close member of my step-family after my father remarried many years ago.  This family member worked with teens and youth at his local church and was highly trusted and regarded.  Sadly, he was never officially charged or stood trial, thus never held accountable, except of course, by God.  That was in large part due to the politics of the time.  This was the 1980’s and unfortunately, the discussion of this topic was very much taboo.  The accusations were leveled against the Senior Minister of the church and my family member.  The whole situation turned into a “he said –he said" situation which led to the conviction of the Senior Minister but no one else.  Apparently there were issues which fell under the "statute of limitations."

My father and I talked about this situation from time to time, but we did not speak of it beyond ourselves – it would have been “too upsetting.” One of the hardest conversations, but also one of the most real discussions we ever had was the one when I had to tell my father the “admission” this family member made to me.  It was one summer – we were in the mountains at a “redneck resort” we sometimes visited.  For reasons I will never know, the family member chose to share with me how he and a group of people once stripped down a teenage boy naked and using wires attached to a car battery, touched the boy’s genitals until he climaxed.  I could not believe what I was hearing.  This was a man I had trusted and actually deeply cared for.  I had been hunting with him and taken trips with him to Atlanta.  Fortunately for me and those closest to me, I was never one of his victims.  Unfortunately, many other teenage boys were not as lucky as I. 

Last night, I printed off and read the grand jury report in the Sandusky case.  After reading all 23 pages, I disposed of it in the fireplace; I certainly did not want to leave something like that lying around for 10 year old eyes.

Like many friends and colleagues, I have wondered quietly and out loud, "Where is God’s presence in the midst of this horror?"  Only because of my faith can I believe that God has been mysteriously present not just in the last week but for the last decade-plus within the lives of these boys, now young men - for the very nature of God is in fact, "Mystery."  I believe God was present in the locker room shower, on those car rides, in those hotel rooms, and in the basement bedroom of Sandusky’s home.  I can only believe that God heard those muffled cries and sobs – those pleas for someone to help.  I can only believe that God has received their anger and pain with open arms and an open heart.  I can only believe that God’s heart broke, God’s eyes were filled with tears, and God’s very soul was angered every time sacred trust was violated.

Joe Paterno was fired not because of a legal failure but because of a moral one.  All week there have been cries for his ouster because he did not “do enough.”  I agree with that and I agree with the decision to fire him, however I admit I am saddened at the way his career has come to an end.

I must also admit that I cannot pass judgment on Paterno without first looking into the mirror.  How often do situations arise in our world which are highly publicized and bring a spotlight on great tragedies and injustice – poverty, famine, war, genocide, abuse – and then within weeks or months the spotlight has moved on?  I pray that in the midst of this evil and darkness, Goodness and Light shall shine.  I do not know when or how that will happen, however, if this is my prayer I must constantly, from this day forward, ask myself if I am doing all I can to ensure all of God’s children are safe.  I must be willing to go far beyond asking that question – I must be certain I am working to ensure the safety of all children – and not just those in my household, but all of those within the household of God.

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Missing Georgia said...
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