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Can God’s love be enough? Inside Sandusky's church

  • Jerry Sandusky is accused of sexually molesting little boys
  • Sandusky attends St. Paul’s Methodist Church in State College, Pennsylvania

Editor's Note: Dana Garrett is a CNN senior producer covering the Penn State scandal. This is her account from State College, Pennsylvania.

If the community of State College, Pennsylvania, is still reeling from the horrific allegations against one of the community’s most prominent men, then the spiritual community of St. Paul’s Methodist Church is feeling the shock all the more intensely.

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, accused of sexually molesting eight young boys, has been member of this church for 30 years, along with his wife Dottie. Until his arrest almost three weeks ago, they rarely missed a Sunday service.

So it’s understandable that when I showed up at the front door of the church this past Sunday, identifying myself as a CNN producer, I was not met with open arms. The man who greeted me made it clear the media was not invited in. But after we continued to talk, his demeanor softened and he told me that yes, of course, I was welcome to worship with them. 

I was escorted into the sanctuary and took a seat in the back. A quick scan of the pews revealed that Sandusky, who maintains his innocence, was not in attendance. I had thought if he was going to church at all, the earliest service (typically the most lightly attended) would probably be the one he might choose.

A time for peace

The service had already begun when I arrived, and so within moments of taking my seat, I was invited to stand and “pass the peace” to those around me. I couldn’t help but think that peace is what this community must be longing for the most right now. Peace from the graphic knowledge of what Sandusky is accused of doing; peace from the media presence that has descended on their small town like an invading army; even peace, perhaps, from the nagging questions some may be asking themselves -- “is there something I should have noticed? Is there something I could have done?”

Soon the man who greeted me was there with a broad smile and firm handshake. He signaled to the pastor, who quickly approached to welcome me to their service. Before returning to the altar, I heard him tell the man to “make sure she gets mugged.” At first I wasn’t sure what to make of that statement. Having been yelled at on a daily basis at our live location on the Penn State campus, and witnessing several acts of vandalism against our and other network’s satellite trucks, I know that many students and residents of State College are ready to see us leave. But mugged? 

In a minute, however, the man returned with a coffee mug bearing the name of the church -- a gift to new visitors. Inside the mug was a card with the service schedule on one side and a message on the other that read, “Do you know that God’s love can and does achieve great things, even amid the turmoil of today’s world?”  

I’m sure this congregation has a lot to say about turmoil right now. And as I sat there, I wondered what a pastor can possibly say at times like this to help quiet the turmoil caused by allegations of child molestation by one of their own revered members. Can God’s love be enough to calm that stormy mix of anger, hurt and betrayal?

Looking for guidance

As the sermon began, I thought perhaps he wouldn’t even address the scandal that has absorbed the rest of the country for nearly weeks. After all, this was the third Sunday service since Sandusky’s arrest. Perhaps whatever needed to be said, whatever could be said, had already been spoken.

But it soon became apparent to me that Senior Pastor Ed Zeiders felt his flock still needed some guidance as to how to process it all, and how to respond. He never once mentioned Sandusky’s name, but his message was clear: The only way to respond to the tumult swirling around this community is by being “authentic” Christians -- with love and without judgment, for the victims and the accused. “We are entrusted with the light of the world,” Zeiders told his congregation. “We are the bearer of each other’s burdens. ... (called to) to care for each other as deeply as we can.”

After the service Zeiders greeted me with a warm embrace. I asked whether Sandusky, if the allegations are proven true, should be forgiven. He said yes without hesitation, but quickly added that forgiving does not mean forgetting, or that people should not be held accountable.  

Sandusky welcome in church?

He told me he’d spoken to Sandusky every day since his arrest, without revealing who called whom or what had been exchanged between them. I struggle to imagine the challenges of this man’s job -- ministering both to those who have been victims of abuse and to those who stand accused of being abusers.

And I struggle to imagine what it will take for this faith community to heal. Some parishioners told me they were still in a state of shock, and were not sure the allegations are true. A long-time church member said the accusations just don’t fit the Jerry Sandusky he knows. The man's wife didn’t want to believe the charges either, but acknowledged where there’s smoke, sometimes there’s fire. I asked another couple if parishioners would welcome back Sandusky? I was told that about half the congregations would. The other half? Not so much.

“Do you know that God’s love can and does achieve great things, even amid the turmoil of today’s world?” I believe I’ve seen some of that already. In the candle-lit faces of students at a Friday night vigil for the victims, in the sea of blue at the Penn State-Nebraska game; and in the writings of Penn State student Matt Bodenschatz, who finally felt empowered to reveal his own childhood abuse, freeing him of a burden and shame he’s held for thirty years, in hope that it would empower others. 

This horrible ordeal has raised awareness and sparked a national conversation about childhood sexual abuse that could very likely save some children from becoming tomorrow’s victims. Is that the greatness that will emerge from the turmoil? Only time will tell.

What I do know is that, despite the upheaval and torment in this parish family, they were still willing to welcome a stranger who they may have at first viewed with suspicion. I came as just a member of the intruding media. I left there having received peace, the body and blood, a warm embrace, a mug, and a better appreciation for the anguish that is being felt in every fiber of this community. 


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