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The Penn State Tragedy Illustrates Four Reasons Why People Practice Idolatry

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 10

In the last post, I said that Penn State University has a culture of idolatry because the value system of the culture prioritizes football over the safety of children.  Does this mean that I think everyone associated with the university are a bunch of idolators?  Not at all.  But everyone at PSU is potentially touched by it’s pervasive football-first value system.  Here are four reasons that people practice idolatry.

1. For personal advantage. Former coach Joe Paterno and former president Graham Spanier seemed to embrace the culture of idolatry, because it gave them perks, power, and wealth.  According to the Freeh report, these men  “exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being.” Further, they exposed one child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky[i].

2. Out of habit. Timothy Curley practiced idolatry out of blind obedience.  Curley is described as “a State College native with a long family history at Penn State.” Some at PSU referred to Curley “Paterno’s errand boy”, and still another characterized him as “loyal to a fault to university management and the chain of command, someone who followed instruction regardless of the consequences.[ii]

3. Out of fear.  In the fall of 2000, a janitor saw Sandusky with a boy in the shower.  By all accounts, the man was devastated by what he had seen, but was afraid he would lose his job if he spoke up.  He said the following to investigators, “I know Paterno has so  much  power, [and] if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone… football runs this University, and the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.[iii]

4. By error.  On November 9, 2011 Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State, and thousands of students rioted, chanting “One more game.”  This constitutes is what philosophers call “Idolatry by Error.”  Idolatry by error is a behavior that persist due to cultural traditions whose foundation is based on incorrect information.  These kids were raised on the notion that Paterno was not only a great coach, but a great leader who taught his players how to be great men.  In other words, these kids thought that Paterno had been scapegoated, and that they were standing up against a great injustice.

Not everyone who works for Penn State buys in to the football-first value system, but not going along can come with a price.  For example, former VP of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey “butted heads with Paterno and his football supporters,[iv]”, and according to the Daily Beast, was fired for investigating players for sexual assaults.  Ironically, Triponey’s boss, former PSU president Graham Spanier, gave her poor performance reviews because she “wasn’t fitting in with the “Penn State way.[v]”   Kudos to Triponey for keeping her moral compass in the face of an alternate value system.

In the next post, we will discuss how the practice of idolatry often rests on self-deception and illusions.

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[i] Report of the Special Investigative Counsel  Regarding the Actions of The  Pennsylvania State University Related to  the Child Sexual Abuse Committed by  Gerald A. Sandusky.  Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, LLP  July 12, 2012 p. 14

[ii] Freeh report p. 75

[iii] Freeh report p. 65

[iv] Sexism played role in Penn St. horror by Jason Whitlock. July 14, 2012 retrieved July 16, 2012

[v] Meet Penn State’s New Whistleblower, Vicky Triponey by Jessica Bennett , Jacob Bernstein. The Daily Beast Nov 23, 2011. Retrieved July 15, 2012

Upset about Penn State? Then Prevent It From Happening Again!

Today’s guest post is from me.  We’ll get back to Busting Your Corporate Idol on Monday.

“The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” – The Freeh Report p 14

If you are interested in my thoughts on how the culture of Penn State enabled this tragedy, and is the embodiment of institutional idolatry, come back on Monday.  I realized that if that is all I had to say, I too, would be ignoring the victims of child abuse.  People come first, so let me share what I have learned about child predators.  Kudos to those news reports that have included experts on child abuse, who have taught me that this is no longer an issue of laws, it is an issue of awareness.

“The overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse victims are abused by someone they know and trust, someone most parents would never suspect.”

For those who prefer statistics, according to the American Psychological association, 60% of perpetrators are known the the parents, 30% are relatives of the child, and just 10% are strangers.  This particularly hits home for me.  I met a family friend’s husband at a wedding and later learned that he was sexually abusing their children.  His own children.  I met him and never in a million years would have guessed.  And she didn’t figure it out for years.

So wearing my business, problem solving hat, if 60% of the problem comes from known, trusted people, how to we as a society solve the problem?

I think a model system is the Safe Haven program, designed by the The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO).  The Safe Haven program was designed to “prevent opportunities for abuse to occur while minimizing opportunities for volunteers to be misunderstood or falsely accused. The guidelines hold coaches responsible for all players, for maintaining supervision protocols, and maintaining appropriate adult/child boundaries.”

Here are the three rules I learned in Safe Haven training as a coach for my daughters’ soccer teams.

  1. A coach is never alone with a child, ever.
  2. A coach never touches a child, ever.
  3. For girls teams, at least one adult woman must be present at every practice.  And if no woman is available, the practice is canceled.  In San Carlos, where I live,  my town, this is taken very seriously.  Once  when I was an assistant coach, the head coach spent the first 15 minutes of practice calling moms until he found one to come to the field.
What is great about The Safe Haven is that everyone involved with the soccer league, the parents, coaches, referees, and kids are all trained on these rules.  The program works exactly as designed – the kids are safe, and the coaches are never in a position where they could be questioned or falsely accused.

What to do if you come across the unthinkable?

What would you do if you found out a close friend, coworker, or aquantance was molesting kids?  One mother involved with the Penn State tragedy confronted Jerry Sandusky when she though he had molested her son.  Don’t do it.  Monsters like him are master manipulators.  You would have a better chance of winning a chess match against world champion Viswanathan Anand of India than you would of learning the truth yourself.  None of us are prepared for such things.  Call for professional help immediately.
Your company may have a policy to inform HR,  your boss, or local security.  Some good people at Penn State followed that procedure, and Sandusky continued to hurt kids for years.  In my opinion, if you see something obvious, just call the police on the spot, and call the chain of command later.  After all the national scrutiny on the failings at Penn State, this is one time to ask for forgiveness later for not following procedure.
You do not need to have proof to call in the professionals like the police or a doctor.  It is not your call whether someone should be prosecuted or investigated.  Present what you know and let the professionals work it out.
Another option is to call the hotline .  1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).  After reviewing a number of websites, this one seems to be the best.  From
 “A qualified crisis counselor will answer and assist you, if you:
  • Have questions about the signs of child abuse.
  • Need to find out how to report known or suspected abuse.
  • Have questions about the reporting process and what you might expect through the process.
  • Want a referral to an agency, counseling or other services near where you live.
  • Need help and want to talk to a counselor.
  • Are in physical or emotional crisis and need support and encouragement
  • Connect you to the best possible resources in your area.
In summary, 90% of child abuse is by people known to the child.  We can do our part to dramatically cut down on child buse by doing the following two things.
1. Set rules for your kids that prevent them from being alone with adults.  Pedaphiles often groom kids by offering special favors or attention. For more information on the danger signs, see
2. Make sure that you, and everyone you know, knows what to do if they see something. Call 1-800-4-A-Child.  We don’t need a witch hunt, but we do need to make sure to bring in a professional if we have reason to believe children are being hurt.  Pedophiles can remain undetected for years, and  hurt multiple children.  And abused kids are much more likely to become abusers themselves.
As uncomfortable as the topic may be, please pass this information on.  It is a concrete step we all can take to make sure that something like this can never happen again.