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My Take: Why is NCAA taking sex abuse more seriously than Catholic Church?
Crews work to remove the Joe Paterno statue at Pennsylvania State University on Sunday.
July 24th, 2012
11:04 AM ET

My Take: Why is NCAA taking sex abuse more seriously than Catholic Church?

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) – As a resident of the most Catholic state in the nation (Massachusetts), I have watched for more than a decade as the Roman Catholic Church responded to charges of priestly pedophilia with a troubling combination of procrastination and obfuscation.

Far too often, Catholic priests, bishops and cardinals have identified not with abused children but with their “band of brothers,” their fellow priests.

In the case of the sex crimes committed by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, officials at Penn State also looked the other way.

They must be credited, however, with commissioning a no-holds-barred investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, whose report (PDF) concluded that Penn State officials engaged in a cover-up that allowed Sandusky’s sexual assaults on children to continue for years.

They should also be applauded for removing a statue of head coach Joe Paterno, who for far too long was revered as a demigod at Penn State.

On Monday, however, the NCAA took the higher road. In a shocking departure from the foot-dragging in Rome, it sided quickly and definitively with the victims.

In a harsh ruling, the NCAA banned the Penn State football team from postseason games for four years and took away 20 football scholarships per year for the same period. It also ruled that the university will not receive its portion of conference bowl revenues for those four years. And it fined the school $60 million.

Equally significantly, it turned all of Penn State's football wins from 1998 forward into losses, stripping Paterno of his claim to fame as the winningest football coach in NCAA history.

These penalties did not include the so-called “death penalty,” which would have shut down the football program for a year or more. But, in truth, this penalty is worse.

The NCAA acted boldly to send a message to collegiate athletic programs elsewhere in the United States that neither the sex crimes of Sandusky nor the “see no evil, hear no evil” response of Paterno and other Penn State officials will be tolerated.

Still, I wonder whether the message will reverberate even further, perhaps even to the hallowed halls of the Vatican.

I was not raised a Catholic, but in my youth I admired the Roman Catholic Church for taking clear stands on the major moral issues of our time on abortion and war and poverty and capital punishment. I have watched with both sadness and horror as this venerable institution has squandered the moral capital it accrued over centuries in a misguided and un-Christian attempt to wish away a problem that was staring it in its face for decades.

Although the Vatican has undertaken nothing like the independent Freeh report to unearth how its institution lost its way, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did commission an outside report delivered in May by researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It also weighed a parallel report by lay Catholics of the National Review Board in June.

Neither of these documents read anything like the hard-hitting Freeh report, however, and the Catholic Church did not respond to its crisis with either the speed or the firmness of the NCAA.

In the Gospel of Luke, at the end of the Good Samaritan story, Jesus tells his followers to “go and do likewise.”

That is the NCAA's message to the Vatican.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Opinion • Pennsylvania • Sex abuse • Sports • United States • Vatican

soundoff (1,118 Responses)
  1. militant catholic

    catholic church was wrong.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  2. GeorgeBos95

    While I agree that the NCAA is taking the issue far more seriously than the Catholic Church, the NCAA approach is at least as wrong-headed in their "execution". The people paying the real price at Penn State are the student athletes, not the perps.

    As for the Catholic Church, they see themselves as above the laws of the government. In Boston, it was leaked that the Vatican had said they'd deal with these issues "internally", and it wasn't up to the local prosecutors. To his credit, Tom Reilly, the Attorney General of Massachusetts, immediately called a press conference and stated that this was unequivocally within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Any and all church staff ultimately charged – including, if necessary, Cardinal Law – would be tried here.

    The Church backed down.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Etalan

      that the whole point, students are their image, income, power over other school. It will force other student to go to other college, their good player gone to another school, etc. Anything else is like a slam to the wrist.

      July 24, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  3. Ben

    Another point in the NCAA's favor over the Church of Rome is that – though college football does sometimes resemble gladiatorial bloodsport – it's never actually sanctioned mass murder. Repeatedly. For centuries. Against practically everybody. (I'm looking at you, Crusades, Inquisition, Cathar extermination, etc.) In fact, by comparison the NCAA is really quite trivial – hardly evil at all!

    July 24, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  4. waterman

    The church is not the analogue of NCAA here, they are the analogue of Penn State. Of course church cares only about saving themselves.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  5. gwilliams

    Excellent article. The hypocrisy and criminal activities of the Catholic church are merely a part of why I avoid organized religion. As for D1 athletics, Unhappy Valley is not alone in conducting themselves in a "football first" mode, but hopefully they are the only college or university to have covered up a child abuse scandal.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  6. hammerofastraea

    I call for a Holy Inquisition for Our Most Blessed Holy Mother Catholic Church! A cleansing flame of Holy Righteousness that devours and burns away the filth, corruption and pedophilia. And then only after with hearts clean and pure, can the Holy Conflagration bring forth a New Eden for all!

    July 24, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  7. sally

    The Catholic church is motivated to cover up for the same reasons as Penn State...they don't want the scandal publicized and they don't want to risk the lawsuits that would ensue with full disclosure. " Money is at the root of all evil" might apply here.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  8. dave

    church = hypocrisy

    July 24, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  9. Argle Bargle

    They're (the NCAA) not. All they're looking for is an opportunity to throw their weight around and make some money out of this. If they had been doing their job in the first place, things like this would never have happened on campus.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  10. bvilleyellowdog

    Now go after Pope!

    July 24, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Mikey

      It seems to me that the NCAA has saved Penn State from the same cancer that is devouring the Catholic Church from the inside. My knowledge of Penn State, Sandusky, Paterno etc. is based on what is on TV and the school's reputation in the business world because of Wharton. Students are resilient and the school's foundations are enviable. I feel that short of a "good" football season this tempest will fade.

      I am a "cradle Catholic" and 72 years old. I have no argument with all the allegations concerning the pedophile clergy and also the coverup of same by the Church. Unfortunately this cancer is permeating the very core of the Church and is not only reserved for this one issue but it has affected many, many other aspects. As I stated above, I am very confident that many Catholics are in a mood to take the Church back and try to return it to it's former stature. Here, as above, the core values, doxology, and foundations of beliefs are as meaningful as always.

      I have empathy for all the students and professors that will suffer because of the sanctions. On the other hand my empathy is no less for all the Catholics that "parrot" the hierarchy's propaganda. The "medicine" doled out to Penn State by the NCAA when compared to the dearth of sanctions doled out by Rome, is by and far more practical and better in the long run.

      July 24, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  11. cranston snord

    Preposterous. The writer appears to know little of either organization. The NCAA has spouted about culture and process at Penn State and they've dealt punishment to a fairly huge number of innocents. The Catholic Church might take lessons from a number of other organizations, but it's absurd to suggest that the autocrats at the NCAA could ever be one of them. That's like suggesting that the US Senate take a lesson from the Italian Parliament.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  12. Rae Ann Pointer

    One thing Penn State and the Catholic Church have in common is that there will always be people out there ready to generalize to the whole group from the bad actions of a few within the group. Steve Prothero is essentially that white guy that would say all black people are bad because he saw one peeping through his wife's bedroom window. Sir, you are a bigot through and through.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  13. OPEN400

    Why was it "justice" to punish many innocent people along with a handful of guilty people – one of which is dead?

    July 24, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  14. Gunluvr

    What the NCAA did was wrong. Penn State per se did not molest anyone; it was Jerry Sandusky and some senior administrators that blackened Penn State's eye. Why should there be a collective punishment applied to this great university? This is what happens when lawyers are given too much authority and common sense is not applied.

    Sandusky was convicted and will have a long time to think about what he did; his crimes should not be extended beyond that because in addition to the fine that will be imposed the people who have been allegedly molested will be lining up around the corner with their claims of pedophilia.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • lo

      as Thelma implied I am shocked that a mother can profit $4858 in four weeks on the computer. have you seen this website....StartProjectMillionaire.blogspot.com

      July 24, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  15. Adam

    Penn State has been covering this up for decades! Even when there's no story about the church you still have to bring her into it. Get over yourself! And I'd say that the catholic church's response has been pretty strong. If you knew anything about the catholic church u would know about the Dallas charter and that if any clergy are even ACCUSED of such things they are suspended from ministry. Why don't you write about how the catholic church has been the biggest educator of protecting children over the past 10 years, educating over 7,000,000 adults or about the great work the catholic church has done in education and medicine but it never happens. Not only that but why don't you look at the public school system. 23,000 public school teachers get CONVICTED each year but it's never found in media. Get over it and write about a story that's actually there

    July 24, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  16. sbp

    Actually, I think the church is more interested in learning from Sandusky. How not to get caught.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Ed

      Part of learning how not to get caught is to in 1998 have a DPW caseworker, a CYS caseworker, the police, the DA amd the prosecutor drop the charges and send you a clear signal that your actions are above the law. If they had done their job Sandusky would have been on a leaglly mandated watch list.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  17. Bree

    I could not agree more. This is the best editorial I've read from CNN. I sincerely hope more children are saved from abuse because of this.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Carrie

      The only reason Penn State 'dealt' with the child abuse scandal is because they got caught.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • ViK100

      Are you that ignorant? Abuses exist and take place everyday IN YOUR OWN HOME. YOU are supposed to raise your kids and protect them. Not a strager or a 50" plasma television. As a matter or fact, abuses are only getting worse because nobody believes in God anymore and therefore have no respect for themselves much less others.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • mv

      @vik100. So the Catholic Pedophiles don't believe in God either? Is the pope (small p) aware of this?

      July 24, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Catherine

      So it's OK to punish the athletes who were not responsible for what happened, but because the Church is and has always been proactive when it comes to its mistakes, the Church is wrong? How is that logical? The so-called cover-ups are not accurate. I would say 9 out of 10 bishops (because there is always one bad apple in every bunch) were following what the psychiatrists told them to do, move the priests who were at fault because they can be rehabilitated. Obviously, this information that the psychiatrists were giving wasn't true, but the bishops are not at fault for doing what the secualar world instructed them to do decades ago.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Catherine, "the bishops are not at fault for doing what the secualar world instructed them to do decades ago."

      So there goes their claim for having a hot-line to - and being wholly inspired by - the "Father, Son and Holy Ghost", eh?

      July 24, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  18. ViK100

    This writer does nothing but to attack the Catholic church in all of his blogs. Religious scholar eh?? He is just like the Pharisees that killed Jesus. They thought they knew everything and anything about the law and wanted everyone to live according to the law except themselves. You have one finger pointing towards the Catholic chruch but you have 4 pointing towards you. You have no respect for the Catholic church and you are a liar..

    July 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Joep199

      Seems to me that he makes a good point, and nothing in what you said refutes it.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • mv

      Can you please point out the lie you are referring too? Are you saying the Catholic Church was not hiding priests who committed crimes and preyed on children? Are you saying the Catholic Church believes that the priests that are guilty should go to jail? Did the Catholic Church not transfer their pedophiles to other areas only to commit more crimes? I am confused. Where is the lie you are referring too?

      July 24, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • bvilleyellowdog

      And pedophiles should be respected why? YOU are part of the problem.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Andrew

      I would have to agree with ViK100. It seems that CNN takes any opportunity that it can to besmirch the Catholic church.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • DG61

      Have you been leaving on another planet for the last decade? Have you just ignored what's been happening with all the child abuse cases? I'm a catholic too but I'm ashamed of the way the church has been dealing with this issue and I feel sorry for members that choose to ignore it. If you find out that a member of your family is one of the victims, would you still feel the same way?

      July 24, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • mv

      @Andrew. The Catholic Church defecated on itself. Not CNN's fault.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  19. Rick

    Excuse me but the NCAA did little to side with the victims. Rather, it elected to punish the Penn State community at large while doing nothing to condemn the 3 leaders who conspired to cover up the crimes of Mr. Sandusky. Offered the opportunity to share his opinion of former PSU President Graham Spanier at his recent nationally televised press conference, Mr Emmert declined to comment...seems the culture of silence remains intact after all. I suppose if Mr. Emmert were the Pope he'd limit attendance at mass and tax the collections basket.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Ed

      No, the NCAA chose to punish Penn State to avoid a bigger investigation into how it has corrupted college sports with excessive money, low graduation rates and too much emphasis on winning by crushing your opponenets to win rankings.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  20. Mark Gerardy

    Unfortunately, there is no NCAA-equivalent in the religion genre to rein in the Catholic church like Penn State. The Catholic church is in many ways a fertility cult ran by morally-bankrupt criminals and political thugs who whitewash all of their sins and manufacture sins for otherwise unpopular groups. Throughout history, the Catholic church has been an enemy to modern science, astronomy, biology, psychology, modern government as well as accepting or even tolerating the religious beliefs of others. In a perfect world, religion would not be a sacred cow that meddles in politics at the most powerful lobbying group in the world, who also enjoys a tax-free status. In a perfect world, Catholic bishops would be put on trial, churches would be closed for eight years and they would pay $60 million in fines, many times over, for each incident.

    U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a criminal run enterprise of political thugs who will put a political spin on their own problems by deflecting the issue, stonewalling, or running propaganda campaigns as they meddle in secular politics to impose their own religious agenda. The nuns are the sole saving grace for Catholicism.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Alan

      Mark, I assume you are not Catholic. Have you attended mass before to develop your own opinion or have you jumped on the anti-Catholic bandwagon because you are easily persuaded?

      July 24, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • as a former catholic and victim of pedophilia by 4 catholic priests

      Hey Mark.. They should be held accountable for crimes against humanity. The worst crimes were committed by the bishops and pope, the cover ups. Instead of helping the children victims, they denied them using threats in many cases. Imagine that! Small children! All to protect themselves first.

      More so, they lobby to stop laws that would expose all pedos, no matter who harmed.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • bob

      Alan, history speaks for itself. You don't need to attend mass in order to read a history book. The Catholic church is truly intolerant of anyone who believes differently. They've proven that over and over, throughout the centuries.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Carol

      Well thought out comment Mark. No Alan I'm not Catholic, have friends and relatives that are, and feel that they would agree with this. The Catholic Church with the right Priests, and Sisters, and Nuns is just fine, just as the Football Colleges are too, not involved with the Penn State problems.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.