Last Friday, a 12-member Pennsylvania jury issued a groundbreaking decision that will change the way we prosecute and perceive sex crimes against children. The guilty verdict will have far-reaching consequences for how authority figures and institutions can be held criminally liable when committing and covering up sexual abuse.
Yet when Monsignor William J. Lynn, a former cardinal's aide with the archdiocese of Philadelphia, was found guilty of endangering children -- and now faces jail time for concealing evidence about predatory priests, transferring them to other parishes instead of confronting allegations about their abuse -- a nation hardly stopped its business. Twitter wasn't atwitter, networks didn't break from regularly scheduled programming to announce the verdict, and reporters on the ground didn't file reports over the whir of circling news helicopters.
Of course, just a few hours later on Friday, a few counties over in central Pennsylvania, there was another seminal jury verdict in a sexual abuse scandal. In what has been the legal cause celebre since last fall, Jerry Sandusky, the disgraced former Penn State assistant football coach, was convicted on 45 of the 48 counts he faced for sexually abusing young boys over the course of almost two decades. While Sandusky, 68, will likely spend the rest of his life in jail, this scandal is by no means over. There are still multiple open investigations, a possible appeal and, inevitably, a wave of civil litigation.
Chilling and horrific as the details of the Penn State case were, though, this was hardly an isolated incident. From churches to schools to families, innumerable other institutions have faced sexual abuse scandals. Note how many lawyers representing the Penn State victims -- we can call them victims now, doing away with the callous "accuser" or the qualifier "alleged," now that Sandusky has been convicted -- identified themselves as "child sex abuse advocates." The implication: There are enough of these cases out there that lawyers can make it a professional specialty.
If sex abuse is so prevalent, why then did the Penn State case become so prominent -- the biggest case since O.J. Simpson, one legal analyst told CNN on Friday night? The notion of an institution putting its survival ahead of an individual hardly makes it unique. Nor does the presence of a predator who operates without accountability for decades.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the sports component was the accelerant that turned this into the nationwide (worldwide?) firestorm it became. Sports, not religion, is today's opiate of the people; as organized religion declines steadily, our appetite and fondness for sports verge on insatiable. Sundays are defined by games, not church services. More of us identify with coaches than with clergy. Even if we weren't familiar with Sandusky, who among us didn't know about the reputation of the Penn State football program or iconic Joe Paterno?
There was instant context, and the overlay of sports persisted as the sordid details poured forth. The insularity of a big-time college athletic program sure appears to have played a critical roll in enabling Sandusky's crimes. Proximity to the Nittany Lions' games, players and aura was one of the lures Sandusky used in grooming his victims. Some of the attacks even occurred in the Penn State football facility, others at hotels and complexes the team was using. The critical witness against Sandusky, Mike McQueary, was a former Penn State player and longtime coach who had finished watching the quintessential sports movie
Even the way we processed the trial mirrored the way we process sports. We favored one team over the other and eagerly hoped our side would prevail. Though the action wasn't televised, we followed the battle between the offense and defense as those on-hand (courtside observers, as it were) told us which side "landed blows" or "scored points."
The throng that had gathered outside the Centre County courthouse Friday night? Holding placards and waving at cameras, the assembled resembled sports fans hoping to be part of a spectacle. They slapped high-fives and cheered when the verdict was announced, consecrating victory. They booed as Sandusky's lawyer, Joe Amendola, spoke publicly at what amounted to a postgame interview. The crowd then cheered again when the team of prosecutors recounted their success.
Those following from home even second-guessed strategy like sports fans. When Amendola spoke of a likely appeal for his client but then gushed of Judge Cleland's fairness and integrity, we questioned this gambit, much as we did, say, Scott Brooks' decision to give Kendrick Perkins all those minutes in Game 5 of the NBA Finals the previous night.
But in other ways, the Penn State scandal really isn't a sports story at all. For as often as Sandusky was labeled "brazen," experts will tell you that he is really a cliché. Finding the most vulnerable kids and then gaining their trust incrementally and threatening to expose their shame, conforms perfectly to the conventional pattern of abuse. A wealthy and powerful institution protecting its own interests at the expense of individuals makes Penn State no different from the various dioceses or schools around the world. Paterno's absence of leadership -- we can debate whether it was actively minimizing Sandusky's crimes, willful blindness, a form of moral paralysis or simply cluelessness -- is also not unique.
If the connection to sports put the issue of sexual abuse on websites, networks and places in the public consciousness where the topic wouldn't ordinarily be discussed -- laying bare how such hideous conduct could go on, exposing the methods and manipulations of serial pedophiles -- then sports has contributed to the greater good. But as Jerry Sandusky languishes in a jail cell and stories about the Nittany Lions football team start to focus on their prospects in the Big Ten next season, it bears remembering that the underlying crimes still occur every day in so many other realms.