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. Murray

    Basically the CNN Belief blog’s goal is to come up with as many anti-Christian stories as possible. Just look at the links above. Give me a break. Can you guys try to be a little more “middle of the road” politically? I have tried to give you guys the benefit of the doubt but linking JoePa and the Catholic Church. You guys need to find some real news. This is the last time I will ever look at your web site or programming. You print garbage…

    November 10, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • PooCorn

      Maybe you should start your own news website! You would be so awesome at it. Then you could write stories that makes the church look good and you can cover up all the stories about the molestators at catholic churches. That is the best idea ever!

      November 10, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • Laurie

      PooCorn is just mad because he went to the top molester magnet of all: public schools.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • PooCorn


      Murray's the one who's angry. I'm the one laughing at him : ) Here's a nickel. Go get yerself some common sense Laurie.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
    • Roberto

      You are so right..CNN is a left leaning, liberal machine.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  2. Laurie

    Um, the same parallels would exist with the U.S. public schools, the boy scouts, the UN Peacekeepers, Occupy Wall St. and other organizations who have serial molesters. Welcome to humanity.

    Also, Joe Pa should not be fired. He's the ONLY guy who did anything right in the situation! Sheesh.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • tallulah13

      So you think covering up for a child molester is the right thing, Laurie? I have encountered many christians on these boards who have said awful things about me, but no one poster has ever been as horrible as you. I don't care if you're a catholic, an atheist, a muslim, a jew or a zoroastrian. You are simply a bad person. Anyone who thinks Paterno is a hero of this situation should be investigated themselves. I hope none of the victims read your utterly selfish words.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:02 am |
  3. human race

    you Sandusky was bad..........what the hell has the bowtie wearing Jim Tressel been hiding that we dont know about....

    November 10, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  4. human race

    and everyone talks about tennessee and the appalachian mtn people being backwards..... I guess it all began with believing in G-d.....and worshipping with the catholic church and attending a BIG 10 school......... all you recruits going to the BIG 10.... dont drop your bar of soap in the shower......

    November 10, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      Backwards is not bad ... check out words spelled backwards ...

      Appalachia - the onliest place the have strip mines (but have you ever seen a mined strip?). Well it don't matter none because we got fiddles and mandolins and clear likker in a jar .. ain't it?

      November 10, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Clyde! I love palindromes! Thanks for the lovely list.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  5. human race

    the catholic churck and the BIG TEN......... abusers of our young.....

    November 10, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  6. RightTurnClyde

    SO many f.a.n.n.y. b.a.n.d.i.t.s. and so few f.a.n.n.y.s .. it seems to be ubiquitous these days .. Gentlemen used to prefer women (like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe) .. Audrey Hepburn, Jean Simmons, Kim Novak, Candice Bergen, Christine Brinkley,...is that all passe now? .. We can forgive Bill Clinton .. at least he liked the OPPOSITE s.e.x.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      Back THEN we liked V8 engines, 4 barrel carbs, 4:11 posi, 101 proof whiskey, M-1 rifles, wimmin, dancin, and also prayin .. horses, good old dogs (hounds, pointers, fetchers), fishin, poker, Stetson, Justin, Levi's, .. mom, country, apple pie, and Jesus .. too bad that's gone.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • *frank*

      Yeah, bring back the real men who were gay from the old days like Achilles and Richard Lionheart.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  7. Roberto

    Frazier- It is the human reaction to want to have done more. If someone dies, you wish you would have said something nice. If you hear of a tragedy you wish you could have helped in some way. Joes boss dropped the ball, that is not Joes fault.
    Situation: You are a Manager- Manager witnesses an employee in an illegal activity- You report this activity to your boss, the President of your division. The President does not handle the situation appropriately and nothing further happens. Should you be fired?

    November 10, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  8. human race

    BIG TEN FOOTBALL...... beware of your young.......

    November 10, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  9. k Wilson

    The crux of the matter is whether Joe Paterno was a mandated reporter of child abuse or not. If he was not a mandated reporter than he had the option to report or not to report. Furthermore, if he was not a mandated reporter of child abuse he then had gone beyond the call of duty to report the purported abuse to the head coach. If he was a mandated reporter than he would have had training in reporting and based on his sterling reputation Mr. Paterno would have followed the mandated reporting guidelines. Since you made a comparison to the Catholic church when it comes to moral judgment and obligation ...let the one who has ...casts the first stone. He is wise to seek legal counsel. He may just have been scapegoated and being held responsible for the wrongdoings of many others.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • sstemp

      What a bunch of cr*p. This is has NOTHING to do with whether anyone is a "mandated reporter". ANYONE who knows that a child is being molested and does not report it is aiding and abetting a pediophile. Your psychononsense has no place here.

      November 10, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  10. susie q

    Paterno is revered by the local Catholic diocese since he and the wife pony up big bucks for diocesan pet projects. Don't know what religion that animal, Sandusky proclaims to be. As a lifelong practicing Catholic, I can tell you I am disgusted by the antics at Penn State that put the welfare of the college and their big bucks sports program ahead of protecting innocent kids. I am anxiously waiting to see what (if anything) the Diocese says about the events of the last few days. I will be sorely disappointed if they come out in praise of Paterno. As an aside, wonder what the former Centre County DA Ray Gricar would say about all this–we will never know because he went missing shortly after some of these alleged incidents came to light.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • Laurie

      But Susie, Paterno is the only person who actually did the right thing. He REPORTED the person based on a mere hearsay, and this person was a respected a liked person. It required great moral courage to report a well-respected colleague based on nothing more than hearsay.

      You should switch sides here and praise Paterno and place blame on the actual wrongdoers.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  11. Jack

    Are you joking me CNN? Why are you bringing religion into this? Stop twisting the story. I live in State College and religion has nothing to do with this scandal, and neither does the Catholic Church for that matter.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
  12. down goes frazer

    Roberto, Joe Pa said himself he should have done more. Read the report. Shame on Joe

    November 10, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • k Wilson

      You like rubbing salt in the wound don't you. Shame on you.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
  13. DisgustedMom

    FIRE Mike McQueary NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It is completely DISGUSTING that he will appear at the game this weekend. HORRIFIC!!!!!!!!

    November 10, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  14. cpeters

    Fire the Trustees too then!!!

    November 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  15. *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 9:10 pm |
  16. Roberto

    All of you Catholic bashers, Joe Paterno was doing what he was taught? Yea, training and mentoring thousands of young men over 61 years to go out and be leaders, business owners and pursue their dreams. Allegations do not tarnish a lifes work. Some are so quick to judge a man off a news report. Remember Richard Jewel???? He saved people from a bomb at the Olympics. The news labeled him as a militia man terrorist. He was actually a hero saving people from a pipe bomb and a great man. It took months for him to clear his name....from allegations, not charges, not a conviction...just allegations.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Golly Roberto. I just don't see how ignoring the fact that one of your buddies was rap.ing a child is a good thing. Maybe you can explain that to the rest of us.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  17. eric calderone

    The alleged parallel between the Catholic Church and Penn State does not exist. This article is so off the mark that CNN should be embarassed.

    The Catholic Church over the past 2 decades has had to struggle with the phenomenon that its clergy have by canon law a property right to their ordination and the rights that entails such as officiating at masses. The juridicial web that defines the Church is a product of many centuries. When considering curtailing a priest's rights, the Church has had to consider how to ensure due process for both the priest and the alleged victim. There is nothing even remotely similar to this in the current controversy at Penn State.

    The Catholic Church is built on the organization of a diocese. It has a centralized center (the Vatican) but its worldwide presence is predicated on regional structures, the diocese, which has a great deal of independence in their operation. This decentralization has had to be addressed when establishing a policy to curtail clerical abuses. Again, there is little counterpart when looking at the Penn State controversy.

    Perhaps Mr. Gilgoff should have burned some midnight oil acquainting himself with the Catholic Church before putting together this less than impressive article. And BTW, the Catholic Church is not male-dominated. Virtually any Catholic who practices the faith will attest to this.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  18. Scott York

    Amazing that there is Pedophiles everywhere huh. Ive heard that people have flaws and these flaws may guide them to areas where they may become predators. Hrmm lets think....I know kidsl like to play sports..ok Ill become a coach in a non specific sport. Oh wait I believe kids go to school, YES Ill become a teacher and keep em after school. Wait a sec kids go to church too? Awesome Ill become a priest. Wait a sec, kids go to camp to? Sweet time to become a camp counselor. Kids at at a theme park? Woot time to be a park attendee. Kids go to malls? Best time of the year to become a mall security guard. See what I did there? Good job tho CNN

    November 10, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  19. The coffee grounds in the CNN breakroom are made from people!!!!


    November 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • Keep your hands off of me you damned dirty ape!

      It's a madhouse !! A MADHOUSE !!!

      November 11, 2011 at 12:19 am |
  20. Listen Up

    Joe was just doing the kind of "things" that the Catholic Church taught him to do! Namely cover it up or condone it!

    November 10, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
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About this blog

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.