The Freeh Report: Lessons for the Church in Protecting Children

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh, today, released the findings of an investigation looking into Penn State’s involvement in the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. The 267-page report, authorized by the school’s Board of Trustees, is lengthy in its descriptions of Sandusky’s abuse of children and how Penn State officials reacted when they learned of the abuse.

A comment early in the report sums up Freeh’s findings. There was a “total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child abuse victims.” According to the report, officials were more concerned about “bad publicity”  than properly addressing the issue. There was a culture surrounding the football program that prevented people from properly responding to Sandusky’s acts of abuse.

There was a clear lack of leadership and accountability at Penn State. Former President Graham Spainer, former Athletic Director Tim Curry, former Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Shultz, and the late former football coach Joe Paterno failed in their moral obligation to protect children and to provide a culture of accountability at Penn State. They were more interested in protecting a brand – Penn State – than caring for the “least of these.”

In a prepared statement, Freeh placed much of the blame on these four individuals.

Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curly never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.

The Freeh Report will be further analyzed in the days to come. It should be a wake-up call to Penn State officials who failed to create a culture of accountability. Football and academic achievements mean little if children are unprotected and accountability is not valued.

Every organization that cares for children should take the findings found in the Freeh Report seriously. This includes the church. When there is a lack of accountability in place, we are not taking seriously are calling to love our neighbor as ourselves and to protect children. Creating a culture of accountability is crucial in our obligation to care for children.

There are some lessons for the church. For one, pastors and leaders must be held accountable. It is clear the football program was not held accountable at Penn State. This includes Paterno, who might have been the clearest example of a “cult of personality.” No matter who they are or their accomplishments, leaders must be held accountable. No one is outside the call of responsibility and accountability. Accountability is not about a lack of trust, but it is about protecting everyone involved. Pastors and leaders are included in this. We have power and influence in our churches, which can prevent some from holding us accountable. Church leaders must be held accountable. When we fail to hold leaders accountable, we are creating a culture where inappropriate activities can take place.

As well, churches should examine their culture. One of the striking findings in the Freeh Report was the culture that existed at Penn State. It is a culture that placed the football program on a pedestal. This kept staff members from reporting what they saw. Among those was a janitor, a Korean War veteran, who was fearful of reporting what he saw, because of the power Paterno had on campus. He feared for his job. This culture does not allow for honest and truthful dialogue. Transparency cannot exist when one group has so much power and influence. Churches must look at our culture. In our local congregations, do we have a culture that would allow for trust and truthful engagement of issues? Do we welcome transparency? Or, do we keep people from talking about their concerns for fear of “rocking the boat?”

Finally, church leaders must understand the proper reporting measures. The Freeh Report makes notes that Penn State officials did not consider proper reporting structures until after Sandusky was arrested. This is unacceptable. Proper reporting structures allow for the proper and quick reporting of alleged cases of abuse. Churches must have reporting structures in place and leaders must know what they are. Many churches have implemented Safe Sanctuaries, which is an effective tool for protecting children and church leaders. Not having a proper reporting structure is damaging to the body of Christ and our care for children.

The Freeh Report will have a lasting impact on Penn State. My hope is it will lead to a cultural change at Penn State. Unfortunately, these issues should have been addressed 14 years ago.

As leaders in the church, we have the opportunity to learn from the Penn State situation, think about our care for children, and make appropriate changes if needed. If we believe that children are important in the kingdom, we will be diligent in this effort and protect our children.

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