Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins is not ready to condemn Joe Paterno for the Penn State scandal. She says he was in perhaps the worst position to see that Jerry Sandusky, his friend and colleague of many years, was (allegedly) a pedophile. Here’s why:

According to [former FBI agent Ken]Lanning, who spent 35 years profiling pedophiles, a hallmark of “acquaintance molesters” is that they tend to be deeply trusted and even beloved. They are not strangers, but “one of us.” They are expert at seducing children and are almost as expert at seducing adults, including parents, into believing in them.

“How do we say to kids, ‘The only way these people differ is, they will be nicer to you than most adults?’” Lanning says. “They will listen to you, and shower you with attention and kindness, and so I want you to watch out for this evil bastard.’”


We need to ask ourselves what the worst sex abuse stories of the past few years have in common. Sports are hardly the only area deviants infiltrate; but they are one in which identifying them is made even harder by the tendency to consider identification an act of disloyalty, because it might damage an iconic franchise. And that is a hallmark of institutions that fail to protect victims. You want a profile of a place that harbors a profiled molester? Here it is:

“This is something that can happen to all institutions, but it is worse in organizations that have a certain aura about them,” Lanning says. “Two of the largest organizations in this country that have the biggest problem with this are the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. When you have that image, a program idolized as pure, the harder it is to admit you’ve made a mistake. If you have this need to appear to be perfect, the harder it is to admit that you made an error in judgment.”

This, I believe, is the best explanation of Pope John Paul II’s execrable failure on the child sex abuse front. He refused to see what was right in front of him, because for the most part, he had this deep need for the Church to appear to be perfect — this, in part because of his experience under communist persecution. But there can be no doubt that he failed miserably. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn had to press him hard to face the fact that the retired Cardinal Hermann Groer was a serial molester. Even then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger tried to force John Paul to act — but the coterie of Curial officials around John Paul played to the old man’s weakness, and protected Groer. Same deal with the evil Maciel, against whom Ratzinger could only move after John Paul had become mortally ill and too weak to stop him.

I well remember when the Boston scandal first broke open in 2002, and spread around the country in the years immediately following, it was a common thing for some conservative Catholics to assume that either John Paul was in the dark about how bad things were, or that he had a secret plan to defeat the bad guys. Neither was true, but it was far easier to believe those implausibilities — and to impute bad motive to people who insisted otherwise — than to admit that John Paul was a failure in any way. This was less about the Pope than about the all-too-human need to have someone to believe in unreservedly.