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Seeming parallels abound in Penn State, Catholic Church abuse scandals
The statute of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired Wednesday, in State College, Pennsylvania.
November 10th, 2011
04:10 PM ET

Seeming parallels abound in Penn State, Catholic Church abuse scandals

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - Both are managed by male dominated-hierarchies. Both are revered by millions of people. And both allegedly dealt with accusations of sexual abuse of children internally, without going to law enforcement authorities.

To many victims’ advocates, commentators and others, the parallels between this week’s allegations about how Penn State dealt with reports of sex abuse and decade-old revelations about sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church are uncanny.

“It is really a striking and almost identical factual pattern that has emerged in the Catholic Church cases and at Penn State,” says Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of American abuse victims in lawsuits against the Catholic Church.

Penn State: A campus divided

“The only difference is that two people have been fired at Penn State who were in revered positions,” says Anderson. “That’s in contrast to every diocese in the U.S where a cover-up has been revealed.

“Not one bishop, archbishop or cardinal has been fired or disciplined.”

Anderson is referring to Wednesday’s firing of Penn State President Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno, days after former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with abusing eight boys, including in a Penn State locker room.

My Take: Paterno's unfulfilled ethical obligations

Two top Penn State university officials who were allegedly told about the abuse and declined to notify authorities have been charged with perjury and with failure to report suspected abuse.

Anderson says both the alleged abuse by a Penn State coach and the institution’s apparent response mirrors the abuse scandal in the Catholic church.

“In both cases, very trusted and revered male offenders used their positions and their care, cunning and trust they enjoy not only to access the victim but to keep those around him from speaking out,” says Anderson.

Prosecutors have alleged that Sandusky used a charity he founded for troubled youth to help lure victims, allegedly engaged in fondling, oral sex and anal sex with young boys over more than 10 years.

Photos: Responding to scandal

Many of those outraged by the allegations against Penn State, including that Paterno had reportedly been told about the abuse but declined to notify authorities, have pointed a finger at what they say was the school’s and its football program’s commitment to maintaining a sterling public image, drawing parallels to the church.

“Both institutions are big and powerful and hierarchical and have very carefully crafted public reputations that they value,” says David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “There’s an obsession with an institution’s image over children’s safety.”

Clohessy says news of the Penn State scandal has triggered a wave of calls and e-mails to him from victims who say the new revelations evoke their experiences with priest abuse.

He and others allege that an aura of righteousness surrounding Penn State football, an object of worship in State College, Pennsylvania, and the Catholic Church helped fortify them against accusations of abuse in their midst.

“When we idolize any institution or individual, it’s unhealthy,” says Clohessy. “We almost invite them to act like they're above the law.”

Share your thoughts through iReport

Anderson says a related parallel between the Penn State and Catholic Church scandals is the existence of hierarchies that apparently allowed personnel to report abuse allegations up a chain of command without higher-ups taking decisive action.

“It’s not because they’re bad men or want kids to be harmed,” said Anderson, speculating about the motives of top officials at Penn State and the church who allegedly kept quiet about abuse allegations, “but because they want to preserve the reputation of the institutions.”

Anderson is licensed to practice in Pennsylvania but would not say whether he is representing any of Sandusky's alleged victims, saying he would want to respect their confidentiality if he was.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents the American Roman Catholic hierarchy, declined to respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Many abuse victims applauded Penn State for firing top officials and criticized the Roman Catholic Church for not taking similarly dramatic action.

“What happened at Penn State tonight is a lesson to officials of the Catholic Church,” said Robert M. Hoatson, who leads a New Jersey group that assists abuse victims, in a statement after Wednesday night’s firings at Penn State. “The only just solution to the clergy abuse scandal of the Catholic Church is the wholesale removal of bishops.”

Church experts say Penn State’s decision to fire its president and its football coach reflect more of a top-down approach to personnel than in the Catholic Church, where issues are expected to be resolved locally, at the diocesan level.

“The American model of accountability drove the decision on Paterno, which is that ‘accountability’ means losing your job,” says John Allen, CNN’s chief Vatican analyst. “Whereas the Roman model tends to shape decisions on bishops, where ‘accountability’ means staying put and cleaning up your own mess.”

Still, some Vatican watchers say the church sex abuse crisis has helped shaped Penn State’s reaction to last weekend’s indictment.

“The Catholic Church's experience with this has raised public awareness, which probably helps to explain the swift reaction in this case,” says Francis X. Rocca, who covers the Vatican for the Religion News Service.

“It is a lot harder than it was 10 years ago,” he says, “for administrators to argue that they didn't understand the gravity of the problem or thought it could be dealt with internally.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Pennsylvania • Sex abuse

soundoff (765 Responses)
  1. shucknjive

    Anything to bash the church I'm sure...

    Need more chicks in football I'd say...

    November 10, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Lee

      Go watch Lingerie Football League. Yes, it really exists.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Nadine

      The Catholic Church doesn't need any help there. Their behavior just needs to be reported.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • JJ in CT

      It's not just the Catholic Church. Abuse of children has occurred in all religions. Abuse is a crime of power, and religions certainly hold power over their flocks.

      November 11, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  2. Chuck

    Here is another (BIG) difference. People are outraged at the abuse in the Catholic Church. Penn State students ignore the victims and stage a riot in support of an ethically bankrupt coach.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Joel

      A small minority of Penn State students, that is.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Jesus

      The parallel is there. JoePa kept the abuse allegations in-house as did the Pope. Both didn't turn things over to the Police. The Pope went a step further when he was a Cardinal in sanctioning and transferring Priests so accused (before it became known to the public that the Church was doing so). Both are guilty, but JoePa at least has an out-her had a purported higher authority that he reported the wrongdoing to...the Pope has no such excuse!

      November 11, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  3. Roger Ogilivy Thornhill

    A parallel would exist if Penn State had sent Sandusky to another university, after discovering that he likes to play in the shower with boys. Otherwise, no. This kind of thing gets covered up everyday, and not because we're all catholic priests.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • zingcone

      Penn State did try to cover it up because jerry sandusky is a pedophile jew!

      November 10, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  4. Laura

    This is a crisis of an organiztion not having women in Leadership positions. It goes without saying that the Catholic Church does not have any female leaders in the organization, and it is very apparent that the Penn State University organization and the Athletics Department lacked this type of leadership as well. I can guarantee that if women had been in power positions within these organizations, and heard the allegations, they would have acted on it. The good old boys network kicked in to protect their own. Women will react instinctively to protect the innocent party who has no voice, the children in this case. I think both organizations need to look seriously at how to re-design their leadership and or/disciplinary review committees to include diverse representation. I don't think many would argue with me that a woman leader would have reacted very differently at Penn State.

    November 10, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • John

      Shut up....maybe women should have to be drafted first.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • james

      Clearly, you're crazy.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • PHinMiami

      OK, . . . but take those useless Kardashian media wh ores, 1st

      November 10, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Joel

      I don't agree that a woman in charge would have necessarily acted differently, but I do agree that diversity in leadership is necessary.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Are you certain that there are no women in the "chain of command" at Penn State?

      November 10, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • KeninTexas

      You say "This is a crisis of an organiztion not having women in Leadership positions" ,,, And this comment is based on your preconceived aggenda that you're trying to advance and just using this situation to do it. Go peddle your women lib junk somewhere else.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Ed

      @Laura, while I agree that a more diverse eladership would probably be a good thing, your assumption is would had made a difference or that women would had act to benefit the victims does not hold up to logic. Many women have turned a blind eye to abuse done to the on kids by family members through out history. They are just as likely as men to protect their allies when the can history has soon that. Women and men are less different then you may think and there is no evidence that either gender is more noble, protective of the weak.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Nope

      @ john – Men can't be drafted either, genius. The draft was abolished in 1973.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Laurie

      Public school is run by women from top to bottom, and it's the top molester magnet of all in society. More molestation in public schools than anywhere.

      Females are no slouches when it comes to protecting pedophiles.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  5. BAT3

    Like "Father" like son...sick...totally sick...

    November 10, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  6. HS

    Alien Orifice, AKA Central Scrutinizer, AKA Father O'Blivion, AKA hippypoet, AKA Sheik Yerbouti has been using other people's handles. He took mine and posted terrible things that do not represent what I am about under my handle. He is a liar, and he is a thief. He uses many handles to cause trouble. I am here because I believe in Jesus. He does not like me because of that.

    Amen.

    November 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  7. steve-o

    What a bunch of pigs at Penn. A kid is molested, the coaches knew and never called police and you fools riot. The hero worship has hit a new low, maybe the lowest. This is a good school??

    November 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Georgia

      Make sure you call it "Penn State" and not just Penn...."Penn" is the University of Pennsylvania, a fine ivy league school. I don't think they'd enjoy being associated with this horrifying mess.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  8. Della

    "Church experts say Penn State’s decision to fired its president" – to fire.

    November 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • PHinMiami

      Outsourcing again.

      November 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  9. Ricke

    xy, xy encouters.

    November 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  10. SarcasmPro

    Oh "SNAP"...

    November 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  11. hippypoet

    i see things in parallels when i drop acid!

    November 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Polopoint

      I see parallel lines. sometimes angles and sometimes circles, but always colors, always, always. hear the colors man.

      November 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  12. PHinMiami

    The term 'Good Ole Boys', once again, takes on new meaning.
    Going back to VA Tech, security didn't sound the alarm until too late because they thought the 1st killing was 'just a domestic'. Seems we are sadly in need of catching up to all we know from tons of research. Good Ole Boy mentality will get you in trouble every time.

    November 10, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  13. ac

    POPE should resign....NOWWWWWWWWW

    November 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Michae l J.

      Putting lots of W's in your message won't make it happen any faster.

      November 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  14. John

    Ridiculous CNN, I knew that someone would have to take the Penn State scandal and turn it to the Catholics. Correct me if I'm wrong but the Catholic's already had their time on the front page with their problems, there is no need to bring them into this now. This is an unfair comparison (if it was a Catholic School then okay)

    November 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Polopoint

      I knew it was coming too. Bashers are having a field day now.

      November 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • thankyou

      thank you, John.

      November 10, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • ved

      They aren't bringing "Catholics" into it as much as they're bringing the teachings and outdated hierarchy and rules that covered up and protected pedophiles. Don't take it personally.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  15. Nick

    Dragging Catholics into this is just irresponsible. If you look at child abuse studies, the highest rate of occurrence in the male on child is the teacher occupation. In the last 10 years, Catholic priests and Deacon have a lower accusation rate than either Jewish Rabbis or Christian ministers.

    November 10, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • John

      You knew that some one would do it, I'm disappointed with CNN.

      November 10, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Polopoint

      it pretty much is muckraking journalism. isn't this reserved for the tabloids? or has CNN got an overly eager, overly ambitious writer looking for his woodward & bernstein moment?

      November 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • ved

      Why wouldn't they... It makes complete sense, very much the same. It's very hard to take a Priest seriously, they are mere puppets of an old regime

      November 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • tecjug

      Sooo...you're saying they haven't learned their lesson, and that they're still doing it? Perhaps further scrutiny IS warranted.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • DICK

      I AGREE. THIS IS A PSU ISSUE AND A COLLEGE FOOTBALL ISSUE SO LEAVE THE CHURCH OUT OF THIS. YOU ATHEIST

      November 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • thankyou

      its funny we never hear those stats though.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Nick,
      Cite your sources please.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • JJ in CT

      The comparison is not to Catholics, it is to the Catholic Church and the ensuing hierarchy of the power structure. Protecting image to keep that power, and keep donations flowing, whether it be believers or athletic boosters. It's big, big business. Follow the money.....

      November 11, 2011 at 7:26 am |
  16. Flyboy7588

    The fact that there is a lot of Penn State student rallying in support of Paterno is a prime example why college kids should NOT be permitted to vote. Just look at the fact that 18-24 yr olds gave us a dolt like Barack Obama in the White House.

    November 10, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • richk

      as opposed to the geniuses who put "W" in office twice....

      November 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • John

      Right, because we re-elected bush in...he didn't put the country into the $13 deficit (we'll just blame it on Obama)

      November 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Joel

      "Take away their right to vote!" "Why?" "Because they vote for a guy I don't like!"

      November 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Joel

      Besides, Paterno is a Republican, so if you want to cast stones here, careful of that house you're in.

      November 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Polopoint

      Really? you think the only taxpaying legal adults that should vote are the ones who will vote your way?

      November 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  17. thejoesoria

    so why isn't anyone calling out NAMBLA?

    November 10, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  18. Joel

    Drunken, stupid students running around pulling down lampposts is hardly unprecedented at Penn State, so don't blame them too much for being pro-protecting-pedophiles. Blame them because drunken, stupid students running around pulling down lampposts is hardly unprecedented at Penn State.

    November 10, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • james

      The got bored with the OWS social burp, what did you expect once the weather got colder!

      November 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Kruse4us

      CNN/Liberals make the best Monday Morning Quarter Backs. It's so easy to criticize after the fact. If in charge of things they would have prevented 9/11; VTech shooting; Columbine; The Jerry Sandusky Scandal; Civilians being killed in the war, the deficit....

      November 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  19. Matt

    The Pope and Bishops are still in power and they would NEVER give that up... JoePa was planning to retire then got fired... Hmmm...

    November 10, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Patti

      You're right, the Pope and Bishops won't ever give up their power willingly, so it's up to Catholics everywhere to stop supporting the blatantly hypocritical, chauvinistic, pedophile transferring machine called The Church.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  20. Nonimus

    And on the non-parallel front, I didn't see to many pro-Bishop riots by Catholics. Not really sure what that means, though.

    November 10, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Nonimus

      oops, 'too many' not 'to many'

      November 10, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • J.W

      Yeah actually you would think that there would be. But I think that most of the parishioners will stick by the accused priest. They think that the victim is a liar wanting money or it is a misunderstanding. They have come to trust the priest and does not believe that he could do wrong.

      November 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Ed

      @J.W gonna disagree with you ther most Catholics I talk to a pretty quick to turn their back on a priest that get caught. One difference though I don't think they have actually caught a priest in the act yet and ignored it. Small difference but a difference none the less. Personally I think all the pedos should be executed.

      November 10, 2011 at 4:51 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.