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. Da King

    I am assuming that the perp was brought up catholic. Anyone check that out? It's got to me. Sadly.

    November 10, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  2. Reality

    There are a few short phrases that define good human conduct.

    Failures to follow two such phrases, "Do No Harm" and "Call A Cop" define the current "vomit inducing" situation at Penn State.

    No god(s) required, needed or desired !!!

    November 10, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
    • Da King

      That's right, only God is needed.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
  3. Joe Paterno

    Laurie, my son. I applaud your protective nature of my good name. Like Jesus before me, I have had many followers. Blind faith is all I ask. You have served me well. You believe in me even though I am a liar and a fraud. That is what religion, er, sports is all about. Please continue to worship me. I went to the school administration. The blood is not on my hands. It's not my job to contact the police. No ma'am. If I were to witness a car accident caused by a drunk driver and then watched him flee, I would do as expected. I would follow him home, get his insurance card, and I would let the insurance company know that someone hit his car. It is the right thing to do. I'd do my part! No need to involve those pesky police officers or a judge and jury. They know nothing. Beside, who wants to involve themselves in such business? It's best to keep things at the lowest level possible. I have more important things to worry about. Children mean nothing to me. What's important is winning games!

    Please Laurie, pray that I am absolved of all guilt so that I might coach again! Winning games is what makes the world go round. I love you Laurie. Thanks for having faith in me.

    November 10, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  4. JayDeeT

    Religion! Sports! In this society, it's all the same: power, control, money, and ego! So, the weak die young; the victims get silenced and scapegoated. The court system is supposed to take care of these criminals, but no longer in the good 'ole US of A. And, we're supposed to be a "Christian" nation! What a lot of crap!

    November 10, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • PHinMiami

      Dominated by men, ripe for the 'Good Ole Boys' mentality. Will get them in trouble every time.

      November 10, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
    • Da King

      We were a Christian Nation. That is mostly gone. But Christs father is coming down here to fix it. Looks like that may be soon.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
    • Free

      Da King
      "Looks like that may be soon."
      They've been saying that here for over a hundred years, and will likely be saying it for another hundred, right?

      November 11, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • ThinkForYourself

      "We were a Christian Nation"

      Really? When? I'm as.suming you can support such a claim, right?

      November 11, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • Da King

      Think for your self.
      That is easy to prove if you study history. Christopher Columbus came to bring the word of god (the teachings of God, the Bible to this land. The mayflower also brought Jesus. Then the pilgrams explored cape cod with the indians they observed the the sabeth. George Washington Believed in christ and turned back the red coats. People came here to be free to worship christ. It is clear this was a christian nation. Satin has gained ground. Christ will be here.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • ThinkForYourself

      Perhaps its time you hit the history books yourself:

      Treaty of Tripoli: "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion"

      Thomas Jefferson: And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.

      James Madison: Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.

      John Adams: The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole cartloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity

      Ben Franklin: Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.
      The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason

      Thomas Paine: Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half of the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind

      And Lincoln's first law partner said of him: He was an avowed and open infidel, and sometimes bordered on atheism. He went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I have ever heard

      Oh, and George Washington always kept his religious views private – because that's what he thought government representatives should do. And Columbus never landed in America.

      Care to try again?

      November 11, 2011 at 1:20 am |
  5. J

    What is an allegation again?

    November 10, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • Da King


      November 11, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • J

      I meant, what does it mean when something is alleged?

      November 11, 2011 at 2:50 am |
    • Mirosal

      "Alleged" means that an accusation is there, but no proof of the person doing it ... yet. You can also subti.tute the word "supposed" for it. (pronounce it sup-PO-zed .. 3 syllables)

      November 11, 2011 at 3:01 am |
    • J

      So, Paterno was fired based on an accusation?

      November 11, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  6. The Fourth Estate?

    The news media seems biased in the coverage of this story, including CNN.

    November 10, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • tallulah13

      So you think that the media should protect pedophiles? I bet you're a good christian, aren't you.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
    • Da King

      In what way?

      November 10, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • The Fourth Estate?

      I tried to respond but CNN would not print my comment...

      November 11, 2011 at 1:02 am |
  7. Laurie

    Paterno is the only hero of this story. The rest did cover ups, but Paterno actually did just the opposite: he reported the dude based on only hearsay.

    That's gutsy. Almost no one here would have the guts to report a well-respected colleague based on hearsay.

    November 10, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • PooCorn

      Laurie, why didn't your personal savior Paterno go to the police? Just some food for thought. Chew on it for a while and try not to break any teeth!

      Gutsy? Puuuuuuuhleeeeease! He should have gone to the police. Instead he went to someone who did nothing, and he figured his hands were wiped clean because of it. He's just as guilty for not going to the police. If it was your kid getting touched, I'm sure you'd feel differently about the whole situation. You know, how like celebrities don't care about cancer until they get it, then they suddenly become activists. You're no different : )

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

      Laurie, what kind of human are you? Paterno was the head coach. He is well known and used to be well liked. All he had to do was tell the powers that be at Penn State that he would go to the media if this was not pursed. Instead, he shut his eyes and let children pay the price.

      Hero? You disgust me.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      "Almost no one here would have the guts to report a well-respected colleague based on hearsay."

      You really think that most people wouldn't report a pedophile to the police, but would instead consider working next to a predator on a daily basis? That's a very sad and pessimistic view of the rest of your fellow humans.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:34 am |
  8. tldixon

    all it takes for evil to prevail is good people stand by and do nothing...

    November 10, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • Free

      I remember that quote every time a believer asks an atheist why they bother to post on this blog.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  9. Johnny 5

    Religion poisons everything . Logic and reason will set you free.

    November 10, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • cord

      Actually, Johnny, I'm very religious and I'm very happy. Thanks for trying to tell me, though, that I'm poisoned and "captive" because of my religion . . .

      November 10, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • Free

      A drug that can make you feel happy, but also make you lose your sense of reality could be described as a 'poison' too, right?

      November 11, 2011 at 12:08 am |
  10. Laurie

    I do think that the jewish religion of the author is a big reason for the decision of this piece to bring the Catholic church into the discussion. He could just have easily brought in the public schools, where the highest percentage of molestation takes place in society. But he didn't. He picked on Catholics, when protestants and jews have plenty of the same abuses.

    Funny how prejudice works like that.

    November 10, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • PooCorn

      It's the right thing to do! Go after one major religion at a time.

      November 10, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • Dee

      They go after the Catholics because of the money - the public schools are riddled with molesters, sports, the Boy Scouts and the protestant faiths too (in fact some protestant faiths believe its ok and dthat's why it isn't reported - lets not forget Warren Jeffs and all his molestations. Its very strange that when a group of men get left alone to do as they please....well you gotta wonder....

      November 10, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I'm guessing that you are a catholic, Laurie. Start thinking about the victims here, instead of yourself. You know, the little boys who were rap.ed?

      November 10, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Laurie , I hope when you have children, someone does the bare minimum required for them.

      You're so stupid you probably won't notice or care.

      November 11, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  11. Anna

    OK, Spanier and Paterno, while not breaking the letter of the law, I understand broke the spirit of the law. They had to go.

    However, I find it puzzling that the two guys NOT charged with a crime were fired. And the two guys who WERE charged with a crime are on "Administrative Leave" Perhaps this is due to legal CYA (if they are found innocent maybe they'd sue?) I don't know. But I wish someone at the University would explain why Tim Curley and Gary Schulz are not also fired?

    Unless I've missed a recent news item......there is a ton of coverage and it's hard to keep up.

    November 10, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • Laurie

      Paterno kept both the spirit and letter of the law. Paterno is the hero of the story. People who do right things are heroes. People who do wrong things are villains.

      Got that?

      November 10, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • PooCorn

      Laurie, why didn't your personal savior Paterno go to the police? Just some food for thought. Chew on it for a while and try not to break any teeth!

      November 10, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
    • tallulah13

      People who defend pedophiles are villains, Laurie? Got that?

      November 10, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
  12. marlow10

    As a Baby Boomer ex-Catholic and veteran of eleven years in four parochial schools, I find the CNN article compelling. I witnessed every form of child abuse, hostility, and meanness while in those schools. There was no accountability for the perpetrators of these abuses, but we may yet see that at Penn State. The Catholic Church is adept at hypocrisy and cover-ups, but the PSU reprobates may not be so practiced.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • Laurie

      Um, the public schools are the top leaders of molestation. Also, Paterno did the RIGHT thing, so he is the only hero of the story.

      Prior to the late 1990s, there were no laws on the books about this, and the society sent perps to doctors. It didn't fix anyone, but that's what the Church and society believed would work. So, technically, that's not cover up to send the perps to doctors, which is what the Catholics did until the laws began changing in the late 1990s.

      November 10, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • Dee

      You call "meaness" abuse OMG! I encountered all of that and more in the public system...you are such a fool to think that just because you were not treated with kid gloves that this can be called abuse...no wonder we seem to have a society of victims looking for handout!

      November 10, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Laurie, you are an evil, selfish individual. If you are trying to make catholics look like horrible people, you're doing a good job. Please try to consider the victims - you know, the children who were molested? Their pain trumps your religion.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      "Also, Paterno did the RIGHT thing, so he is the only hero of the story."

      So, by doing only the bare minimum required by law, and then being around the guy for nearly another decade knowing what a monster he was – that makes someone a hero in your book?

      You disgust me.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  13. Proud Catholic!

    Chris take a look at all the other stuff Gilgoff has written about Catholics and then you will be able to respond with a well-founded answer.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • Chris

      Responding to hate with hate gets us nowhere. Im catholic and we should be not be responding to shots at our church with shots at other religions.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  14. Reason

    The Catholic Church is as shallow as US Football. GREED and lack of character people. No one has the balls to speech up or stand alone for what is right. Do we train students to have strength of character? Our college youth displays absolute no compassion for the victims. What the hell???????????? Right vs. Wrong. Have we forgotten to teach this? Supporting college football coaches with child abuse allegations just for a football game? These students are to be the future leaders of our country? God help us.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  15. Oh Brother!!!

    The Church has now has a no tolerance policy toward priest-clergy abuse. So give it a rest.

    "The only solution is the wholesale removal of Bishops."
    Sounds like someone is intent on destroying the Church.

    In fact, this article is nothing but a pathetic attempt to slam the Catholic Church

    November 10, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • PooCorn

      The definition of "NO TOLERANCE" in the catholic church is, "HIDE EVERYTHING!! QUICKLY!!!"

      November 10, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • R

      Destroy the church? R=The catholic church needs NO help – it is doing that all by itself with its burying of it's head with regard to all the pedophile priests. They should all be fkn shot!

      November 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • eldono

      So? Your point?

      November 10, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
    • tldixon

      the operative word in your post is "now"...how long have they been covering for the pervs in their midst? sick sick sick-be ashamed, very ashamed

      November 10, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  16. gene

    ........has to be a liberal Jewish reporter with the usual bias against Christians. After all, the only thing they can do is try to stir up hate, turn it into a book, try for a movie and hope against hope that they might find a woman who would actually go to bed with them.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • Spiffy

      If you were to go to the writer's facebook you could see that he has "liked" fox as TV.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  17. Bob

    Football and Catholicism are both opiates for idiots, so this article is spot on, even though I didn't read it.

    November 10, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  18. Proud Catholic!

    Not surprised! Another jewish journalist (Religion Editor – what a joke) criticizing the Catholic church and claiming to know something about which he knows nothing. What an outrageous connection. One has nothing to do with the other. But of course he thought wow, this is a great opportunity to take another jab at the Catholic church when it is completely unrelated. You could make a connection between Penn State and the raping and subsequent cover up by jewish-dominated wall street of the 99%. But any chance to bring down the Catholic church and the media jumps on it. Nice piece Gergoff!

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

      Mel Gibson, is that you?

      November 10, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Chris

      Proud catholic you are a disgrace to catholics. There is no jewish agenda here just weak journalism

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

      The two stories are nothing like each other.

      This is a story of a pedophile abusing children then getting reported to his superiors who do nothing and fail to notify the authorities.

      Whereas, what happened in the Catholic Church is a story of pedophiles abusing children then getting reported to their superiors who do nothing and fail to notify the authorities.

      How do people see any connection there?

      November 10, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  19. PooCorn

    We can better manage society by forcing people to take three tests before being allowed to procreate.

    1. IQ Test – We don't want stupid people popping out kids.
    2. Drug test – Do drugs? Not allowed to have kids
    3. Religious test – Believe in god? Nope, not allowed to have kids.

    If you get any of the tests wrong, you get fixed

    November 10, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Oh Brother!!!

      If the world were made up of Atheists, there would NEVER be any child abuse. Or Corporate greed, or unjust wars, or poverty, or educational problems, or racism.

      Yep....I see your point.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • PooCorn

      You should read up on the statistics of prison populations by religious belief. : )

      Atheists comprise of the smallest group of people in prison. That should tell you something.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
    • Dude

      4. Post incredibly stupid responses to news stories online.

      November 10, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • vic

      That's because they all find religion after they go to prison.

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

      @ Dude, that doesn't make sense at all. It doesn't flow well with my original post. Please reword it to flow better. Thanks!

      @vic, nah, most of 'em are catholic or believe in one of the other hundreds of man-made gods before they go to prison. They just don't bother praying until after they're caught : )

      November 10, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  20. Laurie

    By the way, that Jeff Anderson has made untold millions of dollars off of the Catholic church scandal. He enriches himself off of this stuff, which is as appalling as the molesters. Greed is bad.

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

      No – you are simply an idiot – choosing to ignore the theme of this article. I hope your kid is abused and get to feel the pain.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Greed may be bad, but covering up for a child molester is evil. Defending the person who covers up for a child molester is evil as well. You are defending a monster, Laurie, but it seems that you are a monster yourself.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • Da King

      R, you sound like a pedophile by wishing that on someones child.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:15 am |
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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.