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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.”

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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. Roberto

    It is amazing that you can be fired by an allegation, without a full investigation. Does anyone remember the Duke basketball team allegations?? Sandusky is the guilty party. How can you fire Joe Paterno without a full investigation. This is not the Kremlin, this is the United States. Innocent until proven guilty...of a CRIME. The criminal is Sandusky! Paterno deseves a fair shake. This is not a situation to have a knee jerk reaction, gather evidence then convict. Not the other way around.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Listen Up

      SSSSHHHHHHHH YOU Need to read The Report!! Pipe Down! Your making a fool of yourself!

      November 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • The Beav

      "Paterno deserves a fair shake."

      I'm sure his buddy Sandusky offered him one ten years ago.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  2. Margaret

    How nice we don't have to have the expense of a trial. Sandusky has already been found guilty! And sentences have been meted out to Joe Paterno and the college president!

    November 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  3. Peikovianii

    There's more molestation at CNN than at Penn State.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  4. M

    Any excuse to bring the sins of certain churchmen back into the spotlight, eh CNN?

    November 10, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
  5. john stroud

    Don't leave out the Boy Scouts!

    November 10, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • well

      The boy scouts don't allow gay troop leaders, and have far fewer problems than other organisations

      November 10, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  6. jennyy

    there are many that know the satifaction a young boy can bring

    November 10, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  7. Richard Lopez

    Where were you CNN??? . . . and the rest of the media??? You must of had leads early on into the abuse allegations. You should have exposed Sandusky's reported allegations Maybe the media didn't want to touch the story either. You are to blame as well.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  8. erich2112x

    The Penn State athletics department seems to be a perfect microcosm of the Vatican.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  9. Bob

    Another example how any religion, including football, does more harm than good. I wonder how many faculty and alums were in on this and justified keeping quiet for "the greater good of the program".

    November 10, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  10. John Richardson

    "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." Nonsense. No national group fired the president or the coach. This WAS handled locally.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  11. well

    Children are abused at a higher rate by public school teachers than ever by priests or coaches, with all the cover up behaviors of moving teachers or asking for resignations . You will never see the expose on this though. I don't know if it just not as exciting as football or fun as church bashing, or if it is because liberal democrat voting reporters choose not to go after liberal democrat voting union members.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • John Richardson

      I seem to have read about quite a few teachers getting fired and indeed going to jail. Am I missing something? Or are you?

      November 10, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • Al

      Agreed. My understanding is that the numbers are far greater in the public school system. Two factors, I suppose: allegations in a local school district only make the local news, so the national numbers are never reported in the aggregate; and second, as you suggest, the public worker's unions are off limits to left leaning news organizations.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • well

      John, how many hundreds of articles exposing the broad based issue have you read? Zero? Sure, it makes the local paper for a day or two here and there. Just not front page national headlines for a decade. Not quite the same coverage.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • John Richardson

      I've read more general things about both teachers and coaches, A major expose about swimming coaches not long ago. Many individual cases, quite a few in the national media. I don't doubt that there could be more and better reporting. I'd just like to see calls from people who don't seem to be at least as upset by how much press coverage priest cases have received as they are by how little other cases get widely reported.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • *frank*

      Is there one single Catholic Church? Yes.
      Is there one single school system? No.
      Try to see how there is a distiction there. You can do it!

      November 10, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • well

      John, the priests and bishops involved in the church scandal should be in jail. What I have a problem with is the biased coverage that was used by anti Catholic bigots to paint the church as a den of pedophiles. I challenge you to find one post on this forum from some brainwashed fool, who after reading hundreds articles about public school abuse cases has determined that public school is convinced that public schools are "set up for the sole purpose of reciting pedophile victims" as one poor sheep posted of the church.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • *frank*

      (that was not at JR, obviously)

      November 10, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • well

      frank, do nearly all children in the US act as alter boys? Do they nearly all go to public school? Do they have a choice in one but not the other? See the far more important distinction? (You can do it)

      November 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • *frank*

      ...The good old tack of defending something that's bad by pointing to something else that's bad doesn't impress me in the slightest.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • *frank*

      p.s., you may have a good point, but it's my Friday so I refuse to actually read–much less think about–anything with even the minimal degree of attention, lol.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  12. Bazoing

    Congresses, Parliaments, Presidents, Bishops, Prime Ministers, officers of public traded companies, etc. are almost always like this. People like being ordered about by their inferiors. If every very evil person died tomorrow, the world would mourn the loss of 'our leaders.' Then they would go out and find the next worst to replace them.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  13. The Paterno statue is made out of people!!!

    IT'S PEOPLE!!! AAAAAAHHHHGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!

    November 10, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  14. tcaros

    Joe Pa or Joe Ped as he will be called eventually, acted reprehensibly by not calling the police immediately. It leads one to believe there was a ring of perpetrators at Penn State.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Steve

      He informed the person responsible for the situation. He did not know the details. You throwing out baseless accusations is exactly what created the misinformed mass of people. Read the transcript of the grand jury testimony. He told the AD and Vice Pres. They interviewed the witness. They passed down a punishment. JoePa never knew the details. He knew that the AD and VP performed an investigation and handed out punishment. It's not his responsibility to check and make sure they did their job correctly.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  15. SwilliamP

    The near riot was ugly but what people are missing is the way it was handled (a phone call to Joe) and the vulture-like descending of the media felt like an attack from "outsiders". The trustees are probably as well known and well liked as the Board of a Fortune 500 company.. And they have the effrontery to deal roughshod with the man the students are there to support? Dumb action by the kids but dumb too (if you ask me) by the media- and spineless by the Trustees. Firing someone always looks tough. But Paterno was just the most available target. "See, we did something!" The analogy with the Board of a large company is apt. No connection to the community; no personal stake in it; shoot from the hip. I think the kids' actions were wrong but the way this was handled from Mt. Olympus did exacerbate the situation.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Domini

      Paterno should have called the police. Period. This is not 2000. When you know of abuse, call the police. Not your direct supervisor. His inaction enabled the abuse.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  16. Doug

    Explain to me how Mike McQuerry who was the actual witness to the 2002 incident, who had the opportunity to help the child and remove him from the situation with Sandusky and to immediately call the authorities did not do so and it is felt he had done enough and is still coaching. Why haven't the authorities and the trustees condemed him as well? His was the first moral failure and if he would have reacted properly the whole series of events afterwards would have been extremely different.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • PooCorn

      Because he's a catholic.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • bottleman57

      Correct. Please read this and you will understand the series of events better. The media assasins will not report on this. Curley was the one who oversaw the campus police. McQueary was the first failure, but Curley and the board were the next. Actually the reading is good. There were other incidents reported. One back in 2000.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  17. Lindsey

    I'm not Catholic, but comparing these two cases is just a slap at organized religion. I guess I shouldn't expect anything else from the liberal media of which CNN has become a part of. Why has CNN become so left? The network used to live up to its motto, "The most trusted name in news" but no more!

    November 10, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Bazoing

      These are pure and simple insights into the type of people always make their masters. When such beasts die and go to Hell, the public mourns that "our leader is dead."

      November 10, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • PooCorn

      I don't see why you're so upset. This is exactly how organized religion works. They farm kids like cattle for the purpose of molestating them.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Lisa Schaefer

      Lindsey, I agree with you CNN used to be a much better news agency.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • Leo

      A slap at organized religion? Are you kidding me? I WAS Catholic. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, and considered myself a true, devout Catholic. Then, in high school, I discovered that one of my good friend's younger brothers had been abused by the parish priest. You have to have known this kid – he was quiet, studious, kind-hearted, and the absolute definition of a good kid. This MONSTER who pretended to be a man of God destroyed that boy. A few years later, the priest was convicted, only after my friend's brother had been dragged through the mud by the diocese.

      That boy made it until his mid-teens before he killed himself. And the Catholic church looked the other way.

      I also found out that one of the molester priests was placed in my neighborhood "under the radar" to lay low after having been caught. The church just quietly took him away from where he'd been molesting children and put him right into a family neighborhood full of young children. I was in elementary school when he was hiding in my neighborhood.

      You think CNN is attacking organized religion? HA. They're telling the truth about these monsters who are the leaders of the church, and the rest of the church leaders who cover for these monsters.

      Anyone who thinks there's ANY reason to defend the church on this one is either wilfully ignorant, or really doesn't care about children being attacked.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • well

      Public school teachers molest more kids and at a statistically higher rate than priests ever did. This is not defending the church, but pointing out that the media is covering for a problem many times bigger than the priest scandal due to their own agenda. Investigate it. The statistics are out there for all to see.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  18. samshel

    simply put, Jerry Sandusky should be put injail and throw away the key. What a freaking embarassment. the sad part is these kids probably had no where to turn. Joe Pa, you had no balls and to think this guy was still able to use the university facilites with you knowing this is a disgrace. I dont give a crap if you won 1000 football games and coach to you are 100, when these kids needed you to stand up for them, you did nothing!!!! Screw you Joe!!!!!!!!!

    November 10, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • bottleman57

      Ah wise words from an apparent rocket scientist. What a screwball

      November 10, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Steve

      JoePa had nothing to do with Sandusky at this point in his career. It was in his retirement package that he had access to facilities. JoePa has no control over what he did. He reported the incident to people who were supposed to have control over the situation. Check your facts. Everyone just believes the BS that the media writes to get a story. I'm not saying it couldn't have been handled better, but hindsight is 20/20. If you report something to the police about someone, do you go back to the police later to make sure they convicted him. Absolutely not.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  19. Paul R.

    Spanier is a Jew. No one questions Jewish pedophilia. The Talmud PERMITS IT!

    November 10, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • TJG

      The Talmud permits it? Sorry, I don't ever remember reading that. Could you refresh our memories and advise just where you read it? Thx

      November 10, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  20. Karin

    It sounds like a big cover-up to me. Why haven't the Board of Trustees been fired? They have to have known about it. Anyone that knew about this and didn't step up should go to jail. They are just as guilty as this Sandusky. It's not enough that they lose their jobs.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • bottleman57

      Karin
      I agree 100% with your observation that the Board of Trustees needs to go. Why was McQueary not fired, but Paterno was? For all of those shooting off before knowing the details, go to the following site if you are literate that is.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Mike from Pennsylvania

      Why hasn't the charity he founded been investigated? If he molested all these boys in shower rooms and set up a charity to get to know boys. THis is an Outrage !

      November 10, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • darkslicer

      I agree, why haven't the Board of Trustees stepped down? I personally think that Paterno did what he was TOLD to do. University policy more than likely dictates that a superior must be told in situations like that, rather than create a national uproar that might tarnish the university's name. The trustees pretty much enforce that policy to save face for the university and themselves. If anything, they hold more responsibility than Paterno.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:05 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.