"Pastoring to a Community in Crisis"

Rabbi David E. Ostrich [1]   --  June 2013

When State College, Pennsylvania was hit with the allegations of child sex abuse by a respected citizen, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the whole community—gown and town—was devastated. State College is a small town surrounding a very large university, and the size of the town’s permanent population is much smaller than census figures would suggest. Though students, graduate students, and journeyman faculty are certainly part of the community, the longer term residents comprise a fairly small town where everyone knows everyone else and life is shared: people go to the same churches, their children belong to the same scout troops, and they participate in and coach the same athletic teams. They see each other in the grocery stores and restaurants and join in the same civic and charitable endeavors. As a result, when one of the pillars of the community—a popular and respected civic and charitable leader—was indicted for many counts of child sex abuse, the members of the community felt as though they had been kicked in the stomach. 

The ensuing media frenzy did not help matters. The national fame of Sandusky—once the heir apparent to legendary football coach, Joe Paterno—brought hundreds of reporters to town. Moreover, the indictments suggested that high-ranking officials of Penn State had known about the abuse and conducted a “cover up.” This attached responsibility for the crimes to the university as a whole and especially to its fabled football team. Though he was never indicted, many people theorized aloud that the head football coach, Joe Paterno, was guilty, too. Just as everyone knew Jerry Sandusky, everyone knew Coach Paterno and the high officials who were implicated. In addition, the great pride people feel in the university and its football program created a real fusion of identities between the principals of the case and the many, many onlookers. (In addition to the students, faculty, staff, and local citizens, these onlookers included the Penn State alumni—who are said to comprise the largest and most active college alumni organization in the world).

There was lots of anxiety, and there were lots of people to spread it around and get it real “lathered up.”

The initial reactions were disbelief at the allegations, concern for the alleged victims, and an almost panicky need to ascertain who knew what and when. Though many facts were not immediately forthcoming, acceptance set in, and there developed an overwhelming desire to “put it behind us.” While speculating media spun their web of possibilities and analysis, and while the lawyers and judges were just getting started with their complex, slow, and never-ending procedures, people wanted the whole thing to be over. Now!

Though the scandal was complex and involved many different players, factors, and agendas, there was the hope that a few simple and decisive steps could make it all go away. There was lots of talk about “damage control.” Some of these quick-time, short-term efforts failed to varying degrees. Others were aborted before they made matters worse. Eventually, it dawned on the university and the community that this thing was not going away anytime soon. And, as I said, the facts of the case were not really known. Indeed, they are still not known in their entirety. (While Mr. Sandusky has been convicted, the cases involving perjury of three high university officials have yet to be adjudicated. Then, there are the civil cases and the various determinations that they might yield.)

The university did commission an investigation by Louis Freeh, a former judge and Director of the FBI, but the results are questionable, at best. Among the many concerns is the disconnect between the report’s “executive summary” and the report itself. The executive summary states that the university’s president, vice-president for administration, and athletic director knew about the abuse and hid it. This was announced to the press and then repeated over and over again. The local paper also printed a special edition with the whole text of the Freeh Report. The 117 letter- size pages occupied a full newspaper section. Out of curiosity, I read the actual report—all of it. It had lots of details and lots of confusing and unspecific possibilities, but I never could find the iron-clad connections which “proved” that the officials had known about the abuse and had tried to hide it. The executive summary might have claimed it was in the report, but I could not find it. 

The local newspaper had a standard summary of the report’s finding—a summary that made its way into at least one story every day, and I wrote to one of the reporters asking him where in the 117 pages of the Freeh Report this information could be found. He never answered my note, and I wonder whether he or anyone else at the paper actually read the report.

As I said, the anxiety surrounding this scandal was intense and expansive. Not only were local heroes and leaders accused of horrible wrong-doing, but also rumors about the impending demise of the university and city proliferated. Will the NCAA’s $85,000,000 fine bankrupt the university—or at least disrupt its cash flow enough to cripple local employment? Will the football program get “the death penalty” and cripple the local hotels and restaurants which depend on over 100,000 fans every home game? Will the university lose its accreditation and send students, graduate students, faculty, and government grants packing? Each rumor and the ensuing discussions raised the anxiety level higher and higher.

So, within this cauldron of uncertainty, suspicion, and anxiety, what is a local pastor to do? 

Since the actual abuse victims were all from out of town and their identities were kept secret, there was little to be done for them other than offer prayers, sympathy, and wishes for recovery.

Within local congregations were the many long-term residents who knew Mr. Sandusky, Coach Paterno, and the other principals of the case. The church attended by Mr. Sandusky—and in which he had hugged and played with dozens if not hundreds of children over the years—had particular issues, and its wonderful clergy did amazing work in all sorts of ways. The other principals attended other congregations whose clergy and leadership were also confronted with the anxiety and doubts, and who approached the crisis with a variety of pastoral methods.

In addition to this work within congregations, however, there was also the question of ministering to the whole community through a long, dramatic, and continuing drama of existential proportions. About ten months into the scandal and its swirling anxiety, it was my turn to write the weekly religion column for the local paper. No one had approached this topic directly in this particular forum, but, as I thought through the situation in the light of Bowen Family Systems Theory, I concluded that some clarity and calm could help the communal level of thinking. 

What does Theory teach us? (1) That emotions can obscure logic. Both are good and natural, but it is helpful to separate them. (2) That we cannot control everyone or everything; all we can manage is ourselves. (3) Systems attempt to triangle, relieving the anxiety in part of the triangle by sending/superimposing it onto a third person. This may temporarily relieve the anxiety, but it does not help with the underlying tension in the whole triangle.

Fortunately, a good and pertinent Biblical verse was part of our weekly Torah portion, and so I had my challenge. How do I give voice to the emotions of the situation and yet separate the emotions from logical thinking? How do I inspire calm, reflection, and patience in enduring a very long term crisis?  How do I focus the thinking onto the facts and away from the many distracting triangles?

Here is the piece I wrote for the local paper—my attempt to use Theory in a public pastoral communication: 

For the Centre Daily Times, September 2012   

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Congregation Brit Shalom, State College

As we work our way through life and its various problems, the Bible can give us some very good operating principles. An example is from Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” In addition to its insistence on fairness, this verse can also speak of the importance of consistency in justice. As the Holy Yehudi commented, one act of justice needs to be followed by another and another and another. Doing the right thing once or twice is not enough. Justice must be continual. 

We accomplish this by establishing systems of justice—sets of rules and procedures to discipline our raw sense of justice and make sure that rules are applied consistently and fairly. These procedures require time, however, and our passion for justice is often forced to wait while the system works. As with most cases of impatience, we may be tempted to pray, “O Lord, please bless me with patience—and give it to me NOW!”

Principles and patience are especially important in situations with overwhelming emotions, e.g., cases involving a grievous crime. It is hard to approach such questions dispassionately, and stepping back from the emotions of the case may even suggest to some that one doesn’t care. However, a system of justice is only as good as its practitioners’ ability to look at the case logically and legally—to put their emotions temporarily on hold—and make sure that justice is truly just.

In our community, we have been in the midst of a swirling emotional storm for much of the last year. Our shock, anger, and outrage at the abuse of children are appropriate, but sometimes these emotions have diverted our focus and skewed our good thinking. One of the most logical and wise statements in the whole sad affair came from State Senator Jake Corman. In the aftermath of Jerry Sandusky’s conviction and the Freeh Report, the storm de jour landed on Coach Paterno’s statue, and there were urgent cries for the statue to be removed. Thinking clearly, Senator Corman appealed for calm, reminding people that there was no danger or reason to panic: the perpetrator was behind bars, and there was plenty of time to consider the Freeh Report and think about the next logical step. The Senator’s words were not heeded, however, and the statue of a man never even indicted by the law was dishonored. Did this immediacy help the victims heal? Did it soothe the community’s rage? Did it give us closure? No. Appeased only for a moment, the frenzy moved on like a mob, looking for more objects of its anger.

There is a lot that needs to be done, helping the victims and working to prevent child abuse in the future, but every moment is not an emergency. Panic is not a continuing necessity. Indeed, logical thinking can be impeded by frenzy, and good-hearted people can commit to gestures that are more dramatic than helpful. When we think with rage instead of logic, we can miss the real issues and cause much collateral damage.

Crime is a very emotional subject because the victims of crime are real people—people who matter. However, the sad fact of the matter is that the intensity of our emotions can overwhelm our logic. Wisely, we have established institutions and procedures that focus on facts and laws and principles. As important as our emotions are, we need the discipline of our justice system to hold them in check. Otherwise, they run amok and distort justice, leaving us guilty and unsatisfied. “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” Without justice, we’re an out of control mob.

[1] Rabbi David Ostrich has been studying Bowen Family Systems Theory for ten years, through Dr. Roberta Gilbert’s Extraordinary Leadership Seminars and Advanced Seminars.