Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Joe Paterno Story: Musings

The Joe Paterno story has been told and retold recently, and I’m not sure I have much of interest to add to it now that Paterno has been fired by Penn State.  I do, however, have a series of questions/insights/hunches that I haven’t yet formulated as carefully as I hope to do in time.  Since these hunches remain in the formative stage, it might be better to call them inchoate musings about the Paterno story rather than full-blown commentary on it.

And here they are, for what they’re worth: 

1. As one commentator after another has been noting, there are clear parallels between what Paterno is said to have done and what many Catholic bishops have also done.  Paterno is said to have obstructed justice by protecting someone he knew had sodomized a ten-year old boy, who then allegedly went on to rape other children because he was protected by those in authority over him.  

As conservative commentator Rod Dreher puts the point, Paterno did nothing less than what Robert Finn is now under indictment for doing in Kansas City.

2. And there are other connections that, to my mind, haven’t yet been teased out by news commentators, which make me wonder even more about the striking parallels between Paterno’s story and the Catholic abuse scandal.  There’s, first of all, the fact that Joe Paterno is not merely Catholic but a member of the Knights of Columbus.*  He’s a member of an organization that many survivors of clerical sexual abuse have considered not their ally but their enemy in their fight to hold Catholic pastoral officials accountable for their behavior in the abuse crisis.  (And Jerry Sandusky, whom Paterno protected, has received a coach of the year award from the Knights of Columbus and has been a speaker at Knights of Columbus events.) 

And I wonder what these connections might portend for the Paterno story, and whether they have any explanatory heft at all, as one considers the choices Paterno made when he apparently learned that Sandusky was abusing a minor.  

And, second, there’s the interesting fact that Philip Jenkins, whose ephebophilia theory about the abuse crisis, which argues that clerical abuse is largely the abuse of pubescent boys by gay priests and has given aid and comfort to many apologists for the Catholic hierarchy (including Bill Donohue of the Catholic League), is a professor at Penn State.  This past April, when Donohue's Catholic League issued a full-page ad in the New York Times and then the Chicago Tribune, trying to keep the blame-the-gays meme alive as an explanation for the abuse crisis (and an exculpation of Catholic officials), the ad explicitly cited Jenkins as it argued that 1) most clerical abuse cases do not involve children, 2) most clerical abuse cases don't stand up to legal scrutiny, and 3) most cases in the news today involve situations decades old (so the current leaders of the church have "solved" the abuse crisis).  Donohue issued this ad (and where do the funds for such expensive ads come from, I wonder?) in tandem with the publication of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops' latest self-audit of the abuse crisis.

The people who have far and away the most first-hand data about the abuse crisis--e.g., the folks at the Survivors Network of Abuse by Priests (SNAP)--reject Donohue's contentions in this ad out of hand.  Even so, many Catholic officials still try to run Jenkins's ephebophilia explanation of the abuse crisis, with its blame-the-gays meme exculpating church officials, up the flagpole again and again, and they persistently cite Jenkins's 2003 book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice as they argue that the Catholic church is being blamed unfairly for how its leaders have dealt with the abuse crisis.

And I have to muse: isn't it interesting that a conservative Republican Knight of Columbus at Penn State University, where Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies, a darling of the Catholic bishops and of Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, teaches, is now found to have replicated the behavior of the Catholic bishops in his response to the abuse of minors by someone under his authority?

3. And, as long as I'm reaching with these musings (and some readers may conclude, overreaching), I'm going to throw this out there: isn't it also interesting that, at the same time that many defenders of heterosexual male entitlement are bashing the women accusing Herman Cain of sexual assault, students at Penn State--primarily male students, as far as I can determine from video reports (though, yes, there are old boys of the female persuasion in the crowd, as there always are when old boys run amok)--riot to protest the firing of their beloved JoePa?  Right-wing blogger Erick Erickson has even suggested that the media have been focusing on the Paterno story to harm Cain, though precisely how that correlation works out escapes me.  If nothing else, however, it does suggest that there's some common thread to these two stories.

And for me, that thread is the narrative of patriarchal male power and privilege, of heterosexual male entitlement.  We live in a culture in which the unmerited power and privilege of heterosexual men (and of women who collude with this power and privilege, and of gay men who posture as straight) continues to make things happen.  To buy cover-ups.  To place elite men on thrones.  To protect men abusing male minors even while we bash gays and accuse gays of pedophilia!

But we live in a culture in which this scheme of entitlement is being given a run for its money in an unparalleled way, and so there is more and more pushback in many quarters when the seamy underside of patriarchal power and privilege is uncovered--as it is now being uncovered in the Herman Cain saga, in the story of Joe Paterno, and with the Catholic hierarchy around the world.  As this process of pushback occurs, we're going to continue to see badly educated young men who lean right politically--whose future is invested in patriarchy, or so they imagine--rioting in one way or another, either literally or metaphorically, as happened with some Penn State students last evening when Paterno's firing was announced.

And we're going to see the Bully Bill Donohues of the world continuing to browbeat, threaten, and use the abundant money that seems to fall endlessly out of their bottomless pockets trying to buy cover for religious leaders who promote patriarchal power and privilege and heterosexual male entitlement.

But we're also going to see more and more--and more widespread--rejection of the idea that straight men are automatically designated lords, simply because they happen to have penises and use those penises in a way that patriarchal authorities designate as "right."  We're going to see that rejection in more and more sectors of society.

And this widespread anti-patriarchal cultural development does not bode well for the Joe Paternos of the world.  Or the Herman Cains.  Or, perhaps, the Republican party.  Nor for the Catholic bishops and the Vatican.

*H/t to an astute and much-valued reader of this blog, ClevelandGirl, for bringing this information to my attention.

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