A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Just because It's Perfectly Legal Does Not Mean It's Perfectly Moral

College football is mired in yet another scandal. Legendary Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno has been terminated by the university for failing to do more than report an alleged incident of child molestation by one of his assistant coaches in 2002. Paterno did report the incident a day after he was informed of what happened to the university's athletic director, which is what the law required, but the consensus has emerged that much more should have been done by Paterno and I agree.

There are those, however, who dissent. They believe that doing what the law requires is sufficient and that JoePa (as he is affectionately called) should not be so punished for failing to do more. Last night about a thousand college students took to the streets at Penn State to riot over Paterno's dismissal. I think it's safe to assume that these passionate and energetic students have not read the grand jury indictment containing the disgusting details of what happened to these boys who were helplessly subjected to the perverse desires of a powerful adult man. One of the student rioters acknowledged that their behavior was probably not casting the university in a good light, but he said that they were angry and just needed to let off some steam-- a kind of therapeutic vandalism. I suppose turning over vehicles on the street and pulling down lamp posts is acceptable if it calls attention to a believed injustice.

There are so many interrelated tragedies that come together in this scandal, it is difficult to sort through them. The injustice of the abuse these boys had to endure is the greatest tragedy of them all, of course, but there is also the tragedy of collegiate sports programs that are larger and more important than the university itself. There is the tragedy of the temptation to sweep scandalous behavior under the rug because the cash cow of some university sports programs bring in millions each year. There is the tragedy of alumni who are so hell bent on their team winning at all cost, that they have unwittingly created a situation where terrible behavior is either hidden or excused. And there is the tragedy of Joe Paterno, himself, a legend in his own time, and someone who made a difference in the lives of so many of his players and no doubt others. It is a terrible tragedy when a great reputation, which takes a lifetime to build, is irreparably marred in just a few moments in time. Earning respect is difficult and time-consuming; dishonor can be achieved almost instantaneously.

I feel sorry for Joe. It is possible to do so while believing he erred greatly in not doing more. If he had to do it all again, undoubtedly he would do things differently, but this terrible crime was not a case of offsetting penalties with a chance to run the play differently the next time. There are no do-overs on this one. On some things there are no second chances; and because of that, the final whistle has blown on a long and successful coaching career in which the biggest play of the game was what happened off the field.

The United States is the most litigious society in the world. We believe the law fixes everything. If some little thing happens to some folks, they sue; if a special interest group doesn't like a law and they can't get the electorate to vote in their favor, they take it to court. Is it any wonder that too many in our culture confuse the legal with the moral?

Yes, we need the law; without it society would descend into chaos. But just because something is perfectly legal does not mean it is perfectly moral. Paterno did what was legal, but morality is much larger than what is written on the books. I think that's what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount.

At the end of the day, following the letter of the law does not require much courage; going above and beyond the legal necessitates character. And that means doing the right thing, even if it will be painful for those persons and institutions we love. The law demands only that order be kept; virtue insists on human flourishing. The law only required that Peterno report what he heard to his superior and that he did; virtue, however, required that he look into the matter himself. And because he failed to do so, some young men right now are not flourishing because they are dealing with the scars of being sexually violated by another man whom they trusted.

Many years ago, C.S. Lewis bemoaned a civilization that was forming people without courage-- "men without chests"-- is the way he referred to it. And let us make no mistake: doing what is moral takes courage.


Anonymous said...

Allan, I think this is a fine post. However, one thing does bother me. These are alleged crimes. There has not been a trial and due process has not run its course. In the United States people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Very few of us act as if we believe this anymore.

Many years ago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the Archbishop of Cincinnati. At that time he was accused of sexually abusing a seminarian. His name was smeared in the press and his good reputation tarnished. Later the abuse allegation was proven false but the damage was done. He was not presumed innocent until proven guilty.

It seems to me that Penn State has handled this whole thing badly. If these allegations are true they are digusting and should be punished to the full extent of the law.

But shouldn't we let due process happen first?

- Scott

Ted M. Gossard said...

I really wonder about computers sometimes. Lost a comment that I hadn't copied.

Great post! Afraid we Christians are caught up into the system at times, in the muck and mire.

A tragedy!

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yes, legally innocence is presumed, but the moral failing here on the part of those at Penn State was not to take actions years ago when the actions were alleged. I am not speaking of dragging anyone's name through the mud, though we know that the media is great at that. But had this been dealt with when it was first alleged, what "appears" to be true would have stopped right then and there, and less boys would have suffered.

The problem with the smearing of one's name is a problem with our law where the name of the accused in a sexual matter is released before an indictment is made. There are other countries where the accused remain anonymous unless there is an indictment.

Anonymous said...

Allan, I agree with you that action should have been taken years ago. More should have been done and this is why Joe Paterno has lost his job.

A sad situation all the way around.

- Scott

Allan R. Bevere said...


You are correct. We do get caught up in the system and that compromises our witness.

It is OK to get into the muck and the mire-- Jesus did that for us in his Incarnation-- but Jesus refused to go along with the system. I fear the church is into the system up to its armpits.

As far as computers... can't live with them, can't live without them.

Pat Pope said...

Yesterday I heard that Paterno had hired a high-powered attorney. I suspect there may be a suit over unjust firing because as you stated, he did what was legal. Maybe we need to question Penn State's policies if they don't include contacting outside authorities.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You may indeed be right. It may also be that there is more to what he knew than just what was reported to him.

It will all come out, I am sure.