Literature and Society: Doubt and the Penn State Scandal

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Child molestation is a complex topic, not only because of the far-reaching and unknown effects of the horrific trauma that can be caused but also because of the secrecy in which it takes place and the power politics that often come into play in its discovery and the resulting fallout. John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt and the recent Penn State child-abuse scandal both provide opportunities to explore these and related issues, though they approach the problems in markedly different ways. A comparison of the conflicts explored in Doubt and the supposedly obvious truths arising from the Penn State scandal provide interesting commentary on social views of molestation accusations and on the intersection between literature and the real workings of society.

Doubt centers on the possible molestation of a child (or children) by a priest, with a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the accusation/suspicion. The play asks but does not answer many questions, including how one could possibly investigate such a suspicion without creating the appearance of guilt, what outcomes are worth facing the ills of possible abuse, and how duty or larger obligations ought to affect one’s actions in light of suspected abuse. Sister Aloysius has only scant reason to suspect Father Flynn of abusing one of the students, yet she tells the far more open-minded and less judgmental Sister James that, “innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil. Situations arise and we are confronted with wrongdoing and the need to act” (p. 27). As the play progresses, Sister Aloysius’ convictions as to Father Flynn’s guilt only become more certain despite no increase in the amount of evidence, and though Father Flynn is never publicly accused or condemned he is essentially forced out of his position and transferred to another parochial school — even the possibility of guilt in such a scandal is enough to destroy a person, and to create doubt as to their performance and rectitude. In this case, it is doubt that drives the play and leas to irresolute action and unresolved conflicts.

In the Penn State scandal, the same doubts and power machinations can be seen in much of the story’s progress. In contrast, however, it appears as though defensive coach Jerry Sandusky’s acts of abuse were known by his bosses and other administrators at Penn State for years before the scandal broke; though Father Flynn’s transfer could be seen either as a cover up or simply an easy solution to a complex problem full of doubt, Penn State officials were all but certainly aware of the abuse yet specifically avoided reporting it (Boren, 2012). The administration’s guilt in covering up Sandusky’s guilt became one of the lasting elements of the story, as it was a lack of action in light of certain evidence that was found truly unconscionable. The impact of the abuse and the cover-up also extend much further in the Penn State scandal than they do in Doubt, in large part because of the wider knowledge of the scandal that exists in the real-world case. There are many “uninvolved victims” of the Penn State scandal, including the football players who “had done nothing wrong, but now have to do everything right,” while the impact of the alleged abuse in Doubt is far more localized and not even negative in outcome according to all perspectives (Lopresti, 2012).

Literature always reflects the society that creates it. In the case of Doubt, Shanley’s play was both reactive and prescient. It also illustrates a divergence in progression between the public and the private doubts and acts of all of us.


Boren, C. (2012). Graham Spanier charged in Penn State scandal; charges added against two other administrators. Washington Post.. Accessed 2 December 2012.

Lopresti, M. (2012). One Year After the Penn State Scandal. USA Today. Accessed 2 December 2012.

Shanley, J. (2004). Doubt. Dramatists Play Services.