Safe Sanctuaries – Relating to the 2011 Penn State… | UMC YoungPeople
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November 2011

Safe Sanctuaries – Relating to the 2011 Penn State Scandal

By Chris Wilterdink

Seemingly no matter the depth of transgression or how painful the series of events that play out because of poor choices, we must take time for reflection and have the chance to learn from mistakes that others have made. I believe this statement true both on a personal and institutional level. The following observations address some of the issues that have arisen during the initial phases of the 2011 Penn State sex scandal, and how those issues relate to Safe Sanctuaries and the UMC. Before continuing to read, I encourage you to take a moment to pray for the individuals and families that suffered abuse at the hands of a trusted leader in a position of power. The act of abusing young people in any way is deplorable, yet in addition to the anger we often feel toward the individual who perpetrated the abuse, we must also be prepared to offer sympathy and support to the victims of that abuse.


As more details surface regarding the 2011 Penn State sex scandal arise, the failures of the system that institution employed continue to come to light. This in turn provides an opportunity for the UMC to evaluate the systems for preventing abuse in our own institution and local congregations. The full story of the scandal may not be known for some time, yet the initial reports show a complex and layered set of circumstances that allowed an individual member of the Penn State family, Jerry Sandusky, to sexually abuse several young boys while on Penn State’s facilities. More detailed accounts of the case are available from several reputable news sources using the following links:

In many ways, Joe Paterno had become the familial head of Penn State University. His role had expanded beyond that of simple football coach and his power and influence at Penn State helped define the culture of that institution. Over the course of 60 years, many in the college sport world viewed Penn State as a special example of how to balance sports and academics while encouraging positive personal growth in young people. No signs of turmoil or abuse were on the surface, perhaps just how the institution hoped it would stay. Part of the initial waves of anger must relate to how shocking the sexual abuse charges were in relation to the established cultural norm of excellence at Penn State. 60 plus years of goodwill and great work have been tarnished in a matter of days. Yes, tarnished by the atrocities that Jerry Sandusky allegedly inflicted on boys… But also tarnished because of Penn State’s responses and failed systems that allowed the potential for abuse to continue since an initial report of abuse in 1998. No institution, no matter how established or ‘holy’ is immune from these kinds of dangers – football after all is nearly a religion in some parts of the US. The United Methodist Church is also an established institution with a history of good work – and the threat of abuse and system failures could rudely interrupt our culture of service and discipleship.

Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach witnessed a potential rape by Sandusky in 1998. Sandusky at the time was one of his superiors in the Penn State football program. Unsure of what to do, McQueary first talked about the incident with his father, who encouraged him to inform Joe Paterno, the head coach of the incident. Since this incident took place in 1998, it is surprising that little took place in terms of truly addressing the incident until 2011. Part of the reason may be the shame and embarrassment that the victims felt related to the type of sexual abuse they suffered. That shame especially for young boys and girls often prevents them from sharing the full details of their stories with those that can help. Defending or making guesses at why it took so long for McQueary’s eyewitness report to make it to authorities seems like folly, but one observation can certainly be drawn from this situation. It takes courage to report. Penn State is a tight-knit and sometimes insular community, much like some local congregations in the UMC. To report or call out a fellow congregation member, whether as a victim or a witness, takes courage and the support of a system that may need to be external to the local church. This courage and support may need to be even stronger if the abuse involves a church leader or person in power. The fear of repercussions can be great for reporters and witnesses, therefore we should do everything we can to encourage them to report potential abuse quickly to the correct authorities.

Safe Sanctuaries as a resource has been available for long enough that most Annual Conferences and congregations are familiar with the resource. Many Annual Conferences and congregations have even taken the step of getting familiar with Safe Sanctuaries recommendations, or perhaps even put their own Safe Sanctuaries policies into effect. Apparently Penn State had policies regarding how to report abuse and how leadership would channel the reports or allegations – yet gaps in the policy or the leadership prevented swift responses to the abuse allegations, which allowed Sandusky to continue his alleged abusive behavior far beyond the initial accusation. The policies we use must be clear and must be followed. However, no matter the policy in place, it is up to individuals to do the moral and ethical thing – not just their legal or procedural duty.

The firing of Joe Paterno, the Penn State University President, and the indictment of other Penn State Administrators shows that simply meeting the minimum requirements of policy or legality is not enough in cases of sexual abuse involving minors. Instead of using hindsight and regretting not doing more at the time, individuals and institutions should be encouraged to be proactive go beyond the minimum requirements of institutional policy. Policies should be in place to inform and to clarify process for those reporting abuse – they should be the doorway that allows potential victims and witnesses to seek help from the correct authorities. Having clear reporting procedures and policies can simplify hazardous situations. Policies however should not be seen as the minimum ‘cover myself’ or ‘pass the buck’ safety systems for individuals or institutions. One circumstance of abuse is too many – proactivity can become a valuable asset. Having policies in place can expedite an institution’s response time to allegations of abuse. The saddest piece of the 2011 Penn State sex scandal is how a lack of institutional response allowed one potential count of sexual assault against a minor to become forty counts. The damage done by Sandusky grew exponentially because reports did not happen, policies were not followed, the correct authorities were not informed, and Penn State chose to reactively address the situation. The lives of many and the life of the institution may have been significantly less altered if more proactive choices were made.

The rallying cry of the Penn State student body has become ‘We Are Penn State’ and this chant can be heard in the background of nearly every peaceful or contentious student gathering with enough momentum to make the news. Those on the periphery of the abuse know that their institution, or communal body, is hurting. The same phenomenon has been observed in churches enduring similar scandals, most notably the sexual abuse cases endured by the Catholic Church in the United States. The church can be seen as the body of Christ, universities seen as a student body. When one part of the body feels attacked, other parts of the body will rise in defense. While the reaction to protect the institution, or the body, may be natural – it should not come at the expense of protecting or advocating for potential victims. I know that Penn State students have held candlelight vigils for the victims of the abuse, but the loudest voices (and the ones that receive the most media attention) seem to be the ones that rise in defense of their institution. Too often this defense of the institution takes away the focus, respect, and support due to the victims of alleged abuse. This phenomenon leads to one final observation.

Once a witness, victim, or person in authority sheds light on a system or instance of abuse, they should be supported and exalted as a person who has done the right thing. Yet, often the person who reports abuse can face social or professional punishments in spite of their correct behavioral choice. In Penn State’s case, several opportunities to do the right thing and fully report abuse were missed, perhaps because of minimal adherence to the policies in place. McQueary witnessed an abusive act, doing nothing to stop it, but reported it to this father and to his head coach. Joe Paterno reported McQueary’s eyewitness report to the Athletic Director of Penn State, but never followed up after his initial sharing of the information. Likewise the AD and other administrators at the school seemed to do just enough to protect their liability but fell short of the moral choice of involving state authorities. Did any of these parties do ‘enough’ of the right thing? No – and so anger gets directed toward them. When the story finally broke and the allegations of abuse came to light, many felt anger towards the institution that allowed alleged criminal behavior to continue. Many also directed their anger toward McQueary, even extreme instances like death threats. As Christians and as human beings, we are allowed to feel a wide variety of emotions when we discover that innocent children have suffered abuse – however any anger we feel should be directed toward those who made poor choices, and not those who did the right thing. The right things to do often are difficult enough without additional disincentives like social, political, or professional punishments by peers.

In closing this article, readers may have a sense that this case has only received this amount of attention because of the prominence of the Penn State football program and the gravity of the sexual misconduct charges filed against Jerry Sandusky. While this may have some merit – paying attention to how established institutions of high public visibility, who share characteristics with the United Methodist Church, handle abuse cases can help us pay attention to our own policies and procedures and possibly help us prevent cases of abuse before they take place. One case of sexual abuse against a minor is too many…

Chris serves as Director of Young People’s Ministries for Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Chris has a BA in English Education, and an MS in Project Management, and over 15 years of local-church youth ministry experience. He is passionate about leadership and faith development in young people and helping ministry leaders understand their value in the lives of young people. A Stephen Minister, Chris is a native of Colorado living in Franklin, TN with his wife Emily, 2 children, and sausage-shaped beagle.