For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. – Ephesians 6:12 (King James Version)
This week the man at the center of the Penn State scandal, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years. (See “The Little Ones: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued.”) Coincidentally, Sandusky’s guilty verdict came on the very same day that Monsignor William J. Lynn was found guilty of endangering children, becoming the first senior official of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision. Also coincidentally, these almost co-occurring guilty verdicts came in the same state, sending (in the state of Pennsylvania at least) a strong message to sexual predators and the institutions that protect them. Hopefully other states are taking note.
If Martin Luther King, Jr. was right- that “the arc of the universe bends toward justice”- then the arc in these cases has bent just a bit more, even if it has a long way to go. The next harder and more elusive but equally important task will be to bring to justice the many others guilty by association- those in power who, by keeping silent or covering up these evils, colluded with Sandusky and his clerical counterparts.
Because I have to imagine that when the apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, reminding them that their struggle is not with “flesh and blood,” but with the powers and principalities that rule this world, institutionalized evil would have been at least one of the things Paul had in mind here. Some translations render the last words of verse 12 as “heavens,” but I prefer the King James translation: the “high places” are where the powerful sit, clinging tightly to their vested interests in the forms of image, reputation, money and, of course, power. And, I can think of few “higher places” than a prestigious academic institution with its reputation, endowment and loyal fan base to protect- or a 1.5 million-member archdiocese charged with the shepherding of souls and the coffers to show for it.
If the question that remains in the immediate wake of these guilty sentences, then, is why- why, when predatory behaviors were not just suspected but witnessed and documented, were such evils allowed to continue?- the answer, I suspect, lies in this often hidden, spiritual realm to which the apostle Paul alludes. The “spiritual wickedness in high places” to which Paul refers is a realm in which I would venture to guess there are many co-collaborators like Lynn, whose consciences may or may not condemn them, but who, regardless, must be held to account for their devastating sins of omission and commission.
ESPN columnist Howard Bryant puts it well: “The mythology of the coach and the hagiography of the institution, the immediate reflex to protect the institution and the fear of crossing it, far more than Sandusky himself, allowed this tragedy to mushroom. Only the permanent destruction of that sort of deferential treatment of larger-than-life figures and trusted organizations will prevent a repeat, whether it occurs in the church, the university or the Boy Scouts.”
Only the permanent destruction of that sort of deferential treatment of larger-than-life figures and trusted organizations will prevent a repeat.
A struggle? I would say so. But a worthy one, too. Because as Bryant concludes, if the overriding lesson of these scandals is that power corrupts and blinds, it is also true that there is hope in the aftermath of great tragedy: “the failed culture of the past doesn’t have to be part of the future.”
I am hoping along with him.