The Devil and Joe Paterno
WHEN I think about the sins of Joe Paterno, and the ignominious ending of his long and famous career, I think about Darío Castrillón Hoyos.
Castrillón is a Colombian, born in Medellín, who became a Catholic priest and then a bishop during the agony of his country’s drug-fueled civil wars. In Colombia, he was a remarkable figure: a “rustic man with the profile of an eagle,” as Gabriel García Márquez described him, who left his episcopal residence at night to feed slum children, mediated between guerrillas and death squads and reputedly made his way to Pablo Escobar’s house disguised as a milkman to demand that the drug kingpin confess his sins.
But that isn’t how the world thinks of him today. In the 1990s, Castrillón was elevated to the College of Cardinals and placed in charge of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, where he came to embody the culture of denial that characterized Rome’s initial response to the sex abuse crisis. Castrillón dismissed the scandal as just “an American problem,” he defended the church’s approach to priestly pedophilia long after it had been revealed as pitifully inadequate, and in 2001 he even praised a French bishopfor refusing to denounce an abusive priest to the civil authorities.
How did the man who displayed so much moral courage in Colombia become the cardinal who was so morally culpable in Rome? In the same way, perhaps, that college football’s most admirable coach — a mentor to generations of young men, a pillar of his Pennsylvania community — could end up effectively washing his hands of the rape of a young boy.
It was precisely because Castrillón had served his church heroically, I suspect, that he was so easily blinded to the reality of priestly sex abuse. It was precisely because Joe Paterno had done so much good for so long that he could do the unthinkable, and let an alleged child rapist continue to walk free in Penn State’s Happy Valley.
Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?
But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.
I believe that Joe Paterno is a good man. I believe Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, the brilliant sportswriter who is working on a Paterno biography, when he writes that Paterno has “lived a profoundly decent life” and “improved the lives of countless people” with his efforts and example.
I also believe that most of the clerics who covered up abuse in my own Catholic Church were in many ways good men. Of course there were wicked ones as well — bishops in love with their own prerogatives, priests for whom the ministry was about self-aggrandizement rather than service. But there were more who had given their lives to their fellow believers, sacrificing the possibility of family and fortune in order to say Mass and hear confessions, to steward hospitals and charities, to visit the sick and comfort the dying.
They believed in their church. They believed in their mission. And out of the temptation that comes only to the virtuous, they somehow persuaded themselves that protecting their institution’s various good works mattered more than justice for the children they were supposed to shepherd and protect.
I suspect a similar instinct prompted the higher-ups at Penn State to basically ignore what they described as Jerry Sandusky’s “inappropriate conduct,” and persuaded Paterno that by punting the allegation to his superiors he had fulfilled his responsibility to the victimized child. He had so many important duties, after all, and so many people counting on him. And Sandusky had done so much good over the years ...
The best piece about Darío Castrillón Hoyos was written by the Catholic essayist John Zmirak, and his words apply to Joe Paterno as well. Sins committed in the name of a higher good, Zmirak wrote, can “smell and look like lilies. But they flank a coffin. Lying dead and stiff inside that box is natural Justice ... what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt.”
No higher cause can trump that obligation — not a church, and certainly not a football program. And not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark.