A priest’s view of Penn State

Gene J. Puskar AP Penn State’s Malcolm Willis (10) and Silas Redd, right, kneel in prayer before an NCAA college … Continued

Gene J. Puskar


Penn State’s Malcolm Willis (10) and Silas Redd, right, kneel in prayer before an NCAA college football game against Nebraska in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011.

The terrible parallels between the horrific sexual abuse cases at Penn State and those in the Catholic Church are by now well known. But as a priest, I must say this at the outset: the vast number of children and young people abused in the worldwide church dwarf–by an order of magnitude–the number of victims at State College.

The similarities between the two institutions are striking: In both cases children were abused in the most sordid and tragic ways, scarring individuals for life. In both cases well-meaning adults reported the abuse, or at least their suspicions, to officials in the institution, assuming that this would put an end to the crimes. In both cases high-level officials could have reported these crimes to the police but did not do so (for a variety of reasons.) In both cases the abuse happened in an institution that seemed for many to be at the center of their lives. (The cheer “We are Penn State” shows a deep identification with the university.) In both places the desire to avoid “scandal” led to even greater scandal. In both cases there were complex emotional reactions about a person (a coach or a priest) who was also thought to have “done much good” in other parts of his life. And in both cases longtime members of the institutions (parishioners and students) responded with intense emotions over the scandal. (The rioting at Penn State may have shown not only frustration over the removal of Coach Joe Paterno, but also shame and anger over the public denigration of their school.)

The differences are important to count as well: Penn State is not an institution responsible for the spiritual care of souls, as is the church. It is not is expected to live up to the highest standards of the Gospel. Nor is it an institution as vast as, as complex as, or with the international scope of the church. Most importantly, once those at the highest levels of authority (that is, the Board of Trustees) discovered unavoidable proof of crimes, action was swift and decisive at Penn State, unlike, sadly, in the church. Bishops were not immediately removed for their failures in oversight, as was Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier, the university president. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned, for example, months after the abuse scandal first erupted in Boston; and other bishops resigned in the wake of the abuse scandals–but they were not removed.

But I would like to focus on another area that has received little attention in the church, and which may help to shed light on what may still happen in State College.

Several years ago, I was invited to address a conference for psychologists and psychiatrists on the topic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, held at a large teaching hospital in New York City. My own presentation focused on the ways that the sexual crisis came about in the church, that is, the factors that allowed priests to continue to abuse, and bishops to overlook the abuse. (Clergy from other denominations offered their perspectives as well.) Immediately following my presentation a psychiatrist stood to present his paper.

And what he said astonished me.

There were, he explained, two main characteristics of the sexual abuser: narcissism and grandiosity. The narcissist is almost entirely focused on his own needs and personal gratification. Think of it this way, suggested the psychologist: When an emotionally healthy person accidentally does something offensive to someone, and notices another person recoil or senses a feeling of discomfort in the other, the healthy person will stop, because he or she respects the needs of others. To take a benign example, if you are speaking to someone at a party and physically move too close, accidentally invading someone’s “personal space,” you may notice the other person take a step back. If you are healthy, you will say to yourself, “I’m making someone feel uncomfortable.” And you will take a step back as well.

When the narcissist, however, experiences another person’s recoil or discomfort, he will not take that step back. He will not consider the other’s feelings. He may not even notice those feelings. Why? Because, as the saying goes, “it’s all about him.” The narcissist’s needs are paramount. This, in part, helps to explain the tragic tendency of the abuser to continue to abuse even when the other is clearly suffering. Though I have never witnessed an actual case of abuse first hand, it is not hard to imagine the suffering that must be evident on the face of the child or young person. The healthy person registers this emotional response; the narcissist does not.

The second quality is grandiosity. Many abusers, explained the psychologist, are typically grandiose men and women. The grandiose person is often the “Pied Piper,” the one who easily gathers around him students, football players, altar boys, or even adults. Often a larger-than-life character, he may be the charismatic founder of an organization, the successful president of a school, the beloved teacher, the energetic Scout master, the popular pastor or the well-respected principal. Children and adolescents gravitate towards him because of his charisma; and, more importantly, because of his exalted status adults may feel more comfortable leaving their children in his care.

Let me be clear about something else: I’m no psychologist, and no expert in sexual abuse, so I cannot offer any further data other to say this: these words struck me with the force of a lightning bolt. Why? Because the majority of priests I knew who had been removed from ministry because of abuse claims showed precisely these two qualities. And in the case of Jerry Sandusky, Penn State football’s defensive coordinator accused of sexual abuse, we see some signs of both: the narcissist (who–allegedly –commits rape despite the terrible suffering it causes) and the grandiose Pied-Piper (who founds a center for boys).

But there is a further problem, one that is not often spoken about.

In my experience, after the conviction or removal from office or ministry, those two qualities merge in the person with terrible consequences. And these consequences make it far more difficult for the institution to address such cases. The grandiose narcissist now focuses almost exclusively on his own suffering. His removal from office, or from ministry, he believes, is the worst thing that has happened to anyone, and he (or she) laments this fate loudly and frequently. Because of his narcissism he focuses almost entirely on his own troubles; because of his grandiosity he inflates them to ridiculous proportions. He suffers the most. This is the “Poor Me” Syndrome.

Even more dangerous: he draws others into his net, and the suffering of the real victims, those whose lives have been shattered, is overlooked-even by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people. The focus of those within the institution is shifted onto the person they know, rather than the victims that they may not know. “Poor Father,” some parishioners may say, “how he suffers.” It is difficult for a diocese, a religious order, a school, or indeed members of any institution to resist the powerful pull of the grandiose narcissist. Indeed, people often seem unaware that they are being deluded into an overblown sympathy for the wrong “victim.”

In addition, institutional leaders can be overwhelmed by repeated pleas to see how much “poor Father” is suffering, or by widespread complaining about how “hard-hearted” they are for taking action. Tragically, the result can be resistance to real institutional change.

Let me be clear: the pattern of abuse that happened in the church is far more widespread that what is reported to have happened at Penn State. And I should be clear about another factor: the Catholic Church has, since the scandal broke, instituted important steps to remove abusers and prevent future abuse. (The U.S. Bishops Conference’s Office for Child and Youth Protection is one such step.) But anyone who seeks to combat abuse in an institution should be aware of a hidden trap: Be vigilant not only about safeguarding against sexual abuse, not only about holding perpetrators accountable, not only about turning over credible accusations to civil authorities, but also about resisting the powerful draw into feeling too sorry for the wrong people.

James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and culture editor of America magazine.

James Martin SJ
Written by

  • dtattershall

    I agree with much that Father Martin says here, but I’m not as comfortable as he is with the “heads must roll” mentality that seems to grip Americans in response to just about any news story. The abuse scandal in the Church revealed many things about the leaders of the church during the late 20th century, but it also has shown how foreign the idea of forgiveness has become to Americans. We seem to thrive on vilifying leaders who make mistakes, especially if it bolsters our own prejudices and ideologies. We also seem to quick to beat our chests and insist we would have done better, without any real basis for such a claim.

  • 6thandD

    A priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk into a bar, and the bartender says “is this a joke?”

  • david6

    Thank you.

  • cuzcar

    forgiveness is not the issue here. i think the real issue is justice for the innocent and to reveal the cowards who abused all of our trust. yes, as american we have lost sight of true forgiveness and there is always a place for forgiveness…to be the light in the darkest and most horrific of situations.

  • Rongoklunk

    Can’t help feeling that priests are glad to see that other institutions also have pedophilia problems. Kinda normalises child abuse, and takes it out of thechurch.
    ‘See, It’s widespread, Not just in churches,” they say.

    One football coach equals a thousand clerics. One football coach is a pedophile, and perhaps a thousand priests are pedophiles.
    When I see a man in a long black dress and a dog’s collar I assume he’s likely to be a pedophile, because this is where they gravitate to. It’s been called the biggest pedophile ring in the world. This is not true of football, and the two should not be compared with each other in any way.

  • PhilyJimi

    What is the solution? I have no idea but taking advice from a catholic priest sure isn’t a good start to the problem. Don’t blame the bishops it was the entire catholic faith that is to blame. This is why I am no longer a catholic and eventually realized I was an atheist. If there is a god and he allowed this to happen then he isn’t worthy of my worship.

    Here is a good start to ending things like this from happening. Make sure all children organizations have strict rules about never allowing an adult to spend one on one time with a child. Everything needs to be done in a group of at least 5 adults and if possible at least 2 must be parents of the children. If you can’t get 5 adults together for an activity then it gets cancelled NO exceptions. This protects the children and the adults. Also if the kids get dirty, send them home to shower again NO exceptions.

    There are too many individual foundations out there that can fly solo. Pool their resources to watch over the money and to enforce common sense rules without scaring the kids into thinking every adult is a pedophile. There can still be individual foundations working within a common umbrella organization. People can donate to the umbrella foundation or to individual foundations.

  • Bluefish2012

    I’d report this kind of sweeping bigotry, but it speaks for itself.

  • Bluefish2012

    Did you read the article?

  • genericrepub

    A church is not full of perfect saints, but sinners. A church is more akin to a spiritual hospital than to a museum of perfect examples of humankind. The question is what the church does when a member not only sins but sins in a hurtful way. Does it cover up the behavior and allow it to continue or discipline (and report) to change the offending behavior if not remove it entirely? Discipline in churches is one of the most difficult issues facing the modern church. Yes, we are to forgive, but what about protect? Protect kids first, deal with saving the offender’s soul/family and the church pocketbook second. God gave us common sense, we should use it once in awhile.

  • ecosgrove1

    “the vast number of children and young people abused in the worldwide church dwarf–by an order of magnitude–the number of victims at State College.”
    No, it’s the other way around–or the wrong use of “dwarf,” which of course should be “dwarfs.”

  • ecosgrove1

    But as a priest, I must say this at the outset: the vast number of children and young people abused in the worldwide church dwarf–by an order of magnitude–the number of victims at State College.

  • quovadislifecoach

    Bigotry, not reason, by any other name is still alive here

  • quovadislifecoach

    It begs the question: is this truly pedophilia or a form of same-sex attraction gone wild? Also, what is it about our culture that there are so many lonely men out there, whether dedicating themselves to service in a secular institution or a religious one, that they look to dominating young boys? Finally, reading the comments below leads me to wonder why so little is reported about how many charges are made every year about the molestation of young people in public institutions. I hear alot of silence, until now.

  • z_B_g

    There is a “type” for an abuser- is it also possible that there is a typical follower? That is, someone who is drawn more easily into groups and gravitates toward a connection to a central authority figure? It seems that devoted followers of religion and those willing to give over their identity to the phrase “We are Penn State” may be similar types of people. To be clear, I am not suggesting they bear (or should bear) any blame, merely that it’s a trait to be aware of in oneself.

  • bowmanlenj

    Narcissism and grandiosity….

    Yes, Fr. Martin, but there may be another dimension that’s deeper, wider, and much more challenging.

    Pedophilia, I have heard, is not about sex; it’s about power: power over others. Unfortunately, a major component in the Catholic “clerical culture” is the desire/need for power over others and for control. (You can see that as the major motif in the history of doctrine–preservation not of faith but of clerical control.) Clerical pedophilia, hierarchical coverup, and the hysteria over abortion (pun intended) are all manifestations of this same motif.

  • thebump

    I won’t quibble with Fr. Martin’s thesis, but would suggest there is a serious omission: namely, an acknowledgement that false accusations do occur and that due process, including a reasonable presumption of innocence, is an essential dimension of justice. Moreover, with any zero tolerance regime, the punishment does not always fit the crime.

    The fact that all of the cases Fr. Martin is personally acquainted with fit some psychological profile does not mean that all cases are decided justly, or that everyone who complains of injustice is wrong.

  • billOTR

    Sorry Fr. Martin, but you miss the point, the main point like so many before you. The one commonality both the Catholic Church and Penn State have in common are both institutions hold themselves up as being bastion’s of morality, providing a moral compass, and doing things “the right way.” Sadly, both institutions have proven to be at least hypocritical, and at worst downright incompetent. Simple perhaps, but the main reason why many people are finished with the Catholic Church, and I’m sure many, like myself, won’t consider sending their children to Penn State.