“Jerry was always a goofball…”

The sentence above came from an article I recently read online. Originally published in The New Yorker it was about the sexual scandals at Penn State, specifically in its football program of which an assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was the protagonist. Accused and now convicted of repeated and often totally unimpeded acts of criminal and inappropriate sexual contact with underage boys in his organization and program, Sandusky (and others) was the subject of the article.

The sentence stood out in my mind immediately: “Jerry was always a goofball.” As the writer developed the story “Jerry” stood out in the tightly controlled, buttoned-up, football-obsessed culture created by the legendary “Joe Pa”, Joe Paterno, at Penn State. He was always the clown, the slap stick guy who provided a more “human face” to the grimly determined and straight-laced Paterno and his demands on his team. As they said, he was “good with kids” and always seemed to be around them. He took an interest in them, their stories, their family problems, and, as he said, refused several offers of jobs as a head coach at other colleges so he could “stay with his kids.” He created a foundation for kids needing a “second chance”, palled around, and played with them, ‘rough housing” as “jocks” do. He took them home, brought them on trips, and gave them gifts.

The article stated that at times Paterno was irritated by Sandusky’s “goofiness” and lack of restraint, but was led to believe that maybe he was too hard on his assistant coach.

After all, Jerry was” good with kids.”

Sandusky often spoke of his devotion to “the kids” and how was a foster father to many, and could never “leave them” even to take a better and more lucrative post elsewhere in the world of college football. Then again, maybe the job offers didn’t come in as much as led others to believe.

His “quirky” goofball persona led the University to just “let Jerry be Jerry” even when he was found showering with adolescents in Penn State facilities. Even after he “retired” at a rather young age, he still had the run of the extensive athletic facilities.

As I read this article I felt a sickening sense of recognition.

This was exactly the same type of reputation that many of the priests had who were later to be brought down by the sexual scandals that devastated so much of the Church in the last decade. There was the same sense of resigned tolerance, and even approval by authority, of the “goofball priest”. There was also the same reaction on the part of some “old pastors” who weren’t too thrilled that their young curate was always clowning around with the kids; dressing in lay clothes all the time, using their “slang’, taking them into his room, or with him on trips, and such. But he too was led to believe, sometimes even by authority, that he ought to “loosen up”, realize “it’s a new world now”, and “get with it.”

And if it was going on in the 70’s, it was also caught up in that fascination and craze for novelty of the “post Vatican Two” era that prized the quirky, the new, the “relevant”, the “clown” priest. After all, they could “reach the young.” They not only had the approval of those in charge, but often the adulation of many laity who enjoyed the fact that “Father” was taking such an interest in their “kids”, was so often in their house, etc.

This was a phenomenon not only in the Church, but in secular society. The oddball, the goofball, the unconventional were valued above the “normal”.

Right now, the BBC and British society in general is absorbed over the revelation that a very popular TV personality, largely unknown to us here in the US, was a serial and aggressive sexual abuser of adolescents. The late Sir Jimmy Saville, a knight courtesy both of the British Crown and the Holy See, was a long-haired, goofy, rings-on-every-finger, grown man devotee of “kids” who MC’d many TV shows in which child acts were featured, and actually lived on the grounds of a children’s hospital of which he was a “devoted patron” who “did so much for the kids.” It was the 70’s and such types were “in.” It now seems he used all these contacts and charities to feed an urge to sexually molest many of the young who came his way, and his superiors at the “Beeb” knew it. Some have written in the British newspapers that they always knew Jimmy was a “weirdo”, but after all, it was the psychedelic 70’s and “Jimmy was just being Jimmy.”

“Jerry…Jimmy…Father….was always a goofball…”

While not all the “goofballs” turned out to be abusers by any means; I wonder if it really is a compliment to a grown man to be considered such, and to find all his social outlets and friends among adolescents.

Is it really good that “Father is always with the kids?” Or, to be more precise, acting like one?

A priest of course has to be “with the kids”, as he has to be with the old, the middle-aged, but not to BE a kid.

I think now we all sense that perhaps all this wasn’t such a good idea after all. We want our priests to be kindly, responsive, understanding, but to borrow a bit of advice from an unlikely source (Marlon Brando, aka “Don Vito Corleone”) , to also Act like a man!

November 18, 2012


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