"All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia," said W.C. Fields, an atheist who hated Christmas, a philanderer who mistrusted women and who pretended, possibly, to abhor children and who, upon his death from alcoholism, chose to be buried in California.

“All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” said W.C. Fields, an atheist who hated Christmas, a philanderer who mistrusted women and who pretended, possibly, to abhor children and who, upon his death from alcoholism, chose to be buried in California.

Fields had confidence in his own talent and a few friends and it pretty much ended there. He had little use for institutions, not only religion, matrimony and abstinence but Hollywood as well. Fields has plenty of company these days. Faith in institutions, from the national legislature to schools and the presidency and the police to health insurance companies — it isn’t very high and there’s little to suggest it will rise in the short term.

Even a change in presidential administrations, should it come to that, likely would produce only the briefest of White House honeymoons. Now there’s a new Gallup Poll on Americans’ confidence in their banks, which ought to bother bankers but probably won’t: fewer than one in four consumers has either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of faith in the stability of their primary financial institution. Mattress stuffing is out of fashion but, come the need for another bank bailout, mayonnaise jars buried in the back yard could do the trick, assuming there’s much confidence remaining in our currency to bother burying it. I’ve a feeling that a different poll, one that measured the esteem in which a couple other institutions are held, would produce equally dismal results — certainly in Pennsylvania, which had a very bad June 22. Two institutions venerated not only in the Keystone State but especially there, entities already shaken to their foundations, suffered severe aftershocks.

Interesting: one of the two is an institution of faith, the other a secular enterprise that has assumed all the trappings of a religion. Having already brought down not only the president of Penn State University but an even bigger figure, Joe Paterno, its legendary head football coach, the pope of the Nittany Lions, the campus child sexual abuse scandal sent down the perpetrator. Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s right hand for much of his Penn career, guilty of 45 of the 48 counts brought against him for heinous felonies against youngsters, evidence of which surfaced almost 15 years ago only to be effectively ignored. “There are other monsters in the story,” attorney and victims’ advocate Lisa Bloom told CNN. “The adults who for the last 14 years knew there was a child rapist in their midst and failed to act to protect children. Why? Because they wanted to protect the football team — a football team over children that they actually saw being raped or they heard reports of being raped.”

Still facing criminal charges, for failing to report the abuse, are Penn’s athletic director and campus police chief. Still facing Penn itself are civil suits for damages. A mere 150 miles to the northwest from Sandusky’s courtroom, another jury returned a guilty verdict against the highest ranking official of the Catholic church in the U.S. to be accused of covering up child sexual abuse. As so many principals in the Sandusky case, Msgr. William J. Lynn, senior advisor to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the clergyman who oversaw complaints against its priests, was held by prosecutors and jury to be more concerned with protecting the institution than the children in its care. Following the verdict the Archdiocese issued a statement essentially acknowledging it had failed its mission. What Penn State will have to pay in damages can’t be known now but it will be in the millions.

The financially ailing Philadelphia Archdiocese and its insurance companies have paid nearly $12 million in judgments from sexual abuse cases in the previous year, while more than two dozen of its priests remain under investigation. The monetary losses to the university and the Philadelphia church are the least of it but at least they will be measurable. The psychic toll is incalculable. Policing college athletics and the church is not easy. There are roadblocks in the form of traditions that seemingly prize insularity rather than transparency. But that is the nature of institutions, is it not? Is it not in need of changing? W.C. Fields would agree. Even when sober.

• • •

Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.