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Peter Wolson

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The Joe Paterno Syndrome: Idealization and the Corruption of Morality

Posted: 11/10/2011 9:37 am

On the evening of November 9th, more than a thousand Penn State college students vehemently protested the firing of their beloved hero, Joe Paterno, the legendary football couch of Penn State, for not reporting to the police in 2002 his knowledge of coach Jerry Sandusky raping and sodomizing a ten-year-old boy in an athletic facility. Instead, Paterno merely passed the information on to school administrators, allegedly because Sandusky was already retired. The administrators punished Sandusky by depriving him of keys to the university locker room but left him with access to a university office, to young men at Penn State and to boys in the vicinity. Like Paterno, neither the administrators nor Graham Spanier, Penn State president, reported this incident to the police, which left Sandusky free to continue molesting children. In response to the public outcry over charges that Sandusky sexually corrupted eight children and to rectify these horrific lapses in moral judgment, the Board fired the president and Paterno. But the protesting students didn't seem to care about Paterno's moral lapse. They were protesting the Board's injustice to Paterno. His sin of omission, allowing a child molester to continue molesting, paled in comparison to losing their beloved football idol.

Unfortunately, this is quite common. Loving or caring about someone frequently blinds one to their trespasses. One is inclined to see them as all good, and to deny their faults in order to preserve one's idealization of them. Women who love their incestuous, child-molesting husbands or boyfriends frequently protect them to the detriment of their victimized children. Molested children often blame themselves for the molestations and deny the culpability of their molesters, in order to preserve what feels like a vital tie to their sadistic love objects.

Idealization serves a vital psychological need. Children idealize their parents as mentors to provide them with guidance and as models to emulate in order to identify and define their values, morality, direction and life goals. A major danger of idealization is merging with the idealized object and losing one's independent mind and moral judgment, like the cult followers of Jim Jones who drank the poisonous "cool aid" under his messianic direction. Or like the devotees of Joseph Stalin who loved him even after he imprisoned and tortured them. Or like the Germans under Adolf Hitler who adored him while he committed the most unspeakable, barbaric crimes in the name of Aryan superiority.

Joe Paterno was an idealized father-figure, a loving, strong protective model for his young football players and Penn State students to learn from and emulate. Unfortunately, he failed to follow his own advice, to maintain civility, which he said was sorely lacking in today's society, by protecting his own students and young boys in the community from someone he knew to be a sexual predator.

With his lapse in moral judgment, he joins a prestigious group of Catholic priests, including Cardinal Roger Mahony and even the Pope, who in the name of protecting their fellow clergymen and the reputation of the church, exposed hundreds of young boys and girls to sexual abuse by allowing child-molesting priests to remain in contact with them. It obviously takes enormous strength, even from the most religious, god-fearing individuals, to prioritize one's own moral integrity over one's inclination to protect colleagues, friends, lovers and especially family members who have committed child abuse. No wonder it is so hard for the Penn State student protestors to see how their beloved father-figure, Joe Paterno, failed to protect them in a most fundamental way.

 
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