Joe Lapointe has worked as a sports reporter with the New York Times and a segment producer for "Countdown With Keith Olbermann'' on Current TV
If Heaven and Hell are the real deal in the afterlife, as we were taught in Catholic school and church, where is Joe Paterno’s soul today?
I ask this not in a mocking or facetious way. Like the late Penn State football coach, I am a “Latin Mass” Catholic. Although I am a generation younger than Paterno, I was schooled as an altar boy in Latin prayers in the last years before Mass in English was allowed by Vatican II.
As a sports reporter for The New York Times, I covered Paterno and his team for several years and got to know him a little bit. He was of my father’s generation. We connected in a cultural and ethnic way. Although I am French-Canadian on my Dad’s side, Paterno thought I was Italian.
“Giuseppe!” he once told me as he invited me into his office. “Come on in. We Italians got to stick together.” One time he mentioned that he used to date the sister of Yankees’ manager Joe Torre as a student in Brooklyn.
“The one who became a nun,” Paterno told me.
Such memories were revived in recent days by a confluence of events. My father died at age 90, slightly older than Paterno, who died at age 85 last winter. Paterno’s statue was removed from the Penn State campus following revelations that he knew more than he let on about the rape scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach.
And, on Monday, the National Collegiate Athletic Associations announced sanctions against Penn State that included a fine of $60 million, cutbacks in football scholarships and a ban from post-season bowl games.
Perhaps the penalties were not harsh enough, but they are a devastating posthumous indictment of a coach often loosely called a “saint” who “did things the right way.” There is no excuse for Paterno’s lack of action. It is clear he put his football success above the safety of young boys being raped by his now-convicted assistant.
But I wish to put Paterno’s story into a larger context. The internal and suppressed investigation of Sandusky began in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. At the same time, priests of the Catholic Church in the United States were being accused, charged and often convicted of child molestations that took place over many decades.
Paterno behaved in much the same way as our Church. He covered up. He refused to acknowledge or correct the crimes and sins taking place under his watch. He was much like the bishops who turned a blind eye to pedophile priests. No one can condone what Paterno did or didn’t do.
“Pater,” in Latin, means “father.” It is the first word of the “Our Father,” which ends (in the Catholic version) with “deliver us from evil.” I don’t know if there’s an afterlife. Most of the time, the logical parts of my mind doubt it.
But, just in case, I’ll say a few prayers for Paterno, just as I’ll pray for my father. I’ll pray that Paterno’s soul is in neither Heaven nor Hell but in Purgatory, a place, we were taught, where good souls go to be purged of sins that keep them out of Heaven.
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