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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. CS Heinz

    THE LION HAS FALLEN: FOUR THINGS I BELIEVE GOD IS SAYING TO LION COUNTRY

    http://www.csheinz.com/read/post/the_lion_has_fallen_four_things_i_believe_god_is_saying_to_lion_country

    November 11, 2011 at 6:24 am |
    • claybigsby

      shameless plug...move along.

      November 11, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  2. Sean

    I started out going to Catholic school, because I was the only White kid in the neighborhood we lived in. My father granted me a reprieve and allowed me to go to public school, because I was truly an outsider. Being I was never a Christian for 1 second of my life I feel very content, I wasn't born into sin. No one died on the Cross for me, and death bed conversions are a farce. I practice doing what's right every day, to the best of my ability. Saying a few hail Mary's, isn't going to clear my conscience of my failings. That's when saying, I'm sorry does the trick and try to do better. The biggest hypocrites I know, are bible thumpers. Because they think their deeds aren't what comes first, they only need to believe in Christ and grace and they get a free pass!

    November 11, 2011 at 2:57 am |
    • Doris

      Why should the mass of random molecules that make up your brain say they are sorry,. That is a judgment call completely unsupported by the belief system you espouse.

      November 11, 2011 at 5:08 am |
  3. SoCalNurse

    The Catholic church and other Christian denominations ahve been getting away with abusing kids for millenia.

    May they all burn in hell.

    November 11, 2011 at 2:38 am |
    • Keith

      Along with every member of NAMBLA.

      November 11, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  4. SoCalNurse

    Penn State is different from what happend with the pedophile priests because teachers at the school are mandated by law to report abuse, whereas clergy are not. This is why the Catholic church gets away with not reporting abuse to the cops and the staff at Penn State do not.

    It's time to REALLY protect kids and start holding the church repsonsible for it's crimes too!

    November 11, 2011 at 2:36 am |
  5. buttbros

    all hail the butt bros, Sandusky, Joe Paterno and McQueary

    November 11, 2011 at 1:55 am |
  6. buttbros

    To summarized the article: stay away from Catholic priests and Penn-state coaches, right?

    November 11, 2011 at 1:54 am |
  7. CER1940

    "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.”"

    The trouble is they don't clean up their own mess. They continue to try and hide it. In the meantime others are harmed. Time to give up on the failed "Roman model", fire all bishops and start over.

    November 11, 2011 at 1:53 am |
  8. eville11

    Seems you could run a parallel with about any organization that covers up crimes inside its membership... cops, cults, military, PTA, banks, etc etc. Singling out the church, ( also guilty as sin) is pretty easy when you could enevelope society as whole as a parellel. But then again nobody said journalism was hard work.

    November 11, 2011 at 1:11 am |
  9. The Fourth Estate?

    Sensationalism sell the news, doesn't it CNN?

    November 11, 2011 at 1:08 am |
    • Karen

      I'm glad CNN will spread the word about abusive priests tp parents so I'll know to never leave my children alone with them. The church sure isn't going to warn me...they only care about donations.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:19 am |
    • The Fourth Estate?

      Read the CNN headlines - "Horrified mother," "Middle of Scandal," "Ethical Lesson," "Millions at Stake," "University First," "Church Abuse" - they read more like the British tabloid rag the Daily Mail than a legitimate news organization. Sensationalism sells the news.

      November 11, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  10. The Fourth Estate?

    Sensationalism sells the news.

    November 11, 2011 at 1:06 am |
    • tallulah13

      And you're defending someone who protected a man who ra.pes children. You should be ashamed of yourself.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:44 am |
    • The Fourth Estate?

      My comment was directed at the sensationalism of the story by CNN for financial gain.

      November 11, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  11. StewartIII

    NewsBusters: CNN 'Belief Blog' Piles on Comparing Penn State to Catholic Hierarchy
    http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tim-graham/2011/11/10/cnn-belief-blog-piles-comparing-penn-state-catholic-hierarchy

    November 11, 2011 at 12:54 am |
  12. James

    We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes

    November 11, 2011 at 12:53 am |
    • Da King

      James, you are overlooking the work of Satin. He is with you now.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:57 am |
    • Logic

      James, you err in your statement! God creates humans, and we are born with a sin nature because WE ALL sinned from the beginning, but God also gives every human a way out, and you have rejected Him!

      November 11, 2011 at 1:12 am |
    • eville11

      If you don't understand, you shouldn't write comments.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • ThinkForYourself

      " WE ALL sinned from the beginning"

      Funny, in all version of the bible that I've read, there were only two people at the beginning. Unless you're saying that we sin in the womb...

      November 11, 2011 at 1:23 am |
    • Get Real

      @Logic - Please don't take the name of something precious and vital in vain.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • Get Real

      Da King - Actually, Satin is pretty cool. It even passes the biblical commandment since it is usually made from pure silk. Sometimes, however, they do make it using cotton, nylon and polyester blends... so I guess that is the evil Satin.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:32 am |
    • fred

      We are here for perhaps 100 years at best. Compared to eternity that is not even a nana second, let’s call it non-existent. God says I knew you before I knit your bones together in the womb. Basically, in less than one second your entire eternal life is determined. That is one mighty God. That is the God of Abraham, Moses, David and everyone on this web site. Powerful, perfect and good in every imaginable way. The story of the Bible took less than 700 nana seconds of time. You make a choice based on all the information you ever need or will receive to accept God or reject. Unfortunately on this site we see many have rejected God. The main excuse given is that atheists have greater knowledge than God thus they claim God set up a lame universe and created a broken man.
      Truth; no atheist on this site could do better than God if they lived 10,000 years because they could not create a better environment that sorts out the Godly from the ungodly. Think, only those that worship, love and want to be with God in the face of all the hardship of this life he has created will remain in the Kingdom. Only those who with their own free will chose God, not out of fear but out of love and faith. Not out of works so that no man may boast. Yep, James it is a perfect plan.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • tallulah13

      @Get Real

      Silk Satin is really nice, but so much of it these days is made from polyester.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:41 am |
    • tallulah13

      Da King, I you may not realize this, but cotton is the fabric of our lives.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:45 am |
    • Logic

      @Get Real, please take a logic course before you type again.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:54 am |
    • Logic

      @ThinkForYourself. Yep, there were only 2, and they sinned, and it was passed all the way down because none of us would have been sinless. We are all born with a sin nature, and going back to the beginning where it started, yes, WE ALL have sinned.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:58 am |
    • Get Real

      @Logic, - and perhaps you should change your screen name to "Fantasy".

      There is not a single shred of verified evidence for your purported supernatural beings or events.

      November 11, 2011 at 2:00 am |
    • claybigsby

      "God says I knew you before I knit your bones together in the womb."

      no Fred, humans wrote that not god...unless youve somehow spoken to god yourself?

      November 11, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  13. Greg

    It is about time a journalist shed light on a worth while topic. Why has no one within the Catholic hierarchy went to jail. Even as high as the (dare I say) Pope himself.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:45 am |
  14. cristi

    THIS STORY IS NOT ABOUT JOE PA. THE MEDIA IS MAKING ABOUT HIM TO SELL NEWSPAPERS AND STORIES. ITS SENSATIONALISM AND ITS NOT PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM.

    THE REAL STORY IS JERRY SANDUSKY. THE REAL STORY IS THAT THIS MAN USED A CHARITY TO EXPLOIT AND ABUSE CHILDREN.

    STICK TO THE STORY.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • THE BIBLE IS GARBAGE

      I HOPE YOU STOPPED WORKING WITH THIS CHARITY.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • ThinkForYourself

      That man would have no been able to commit all of the heinous crimes that he did if other's hadn't turned a blind eye – and continued to work with the man and allow him to have access tot he facility where he rap.ed young children. Stop deflecting.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:49 am |
  15. PennStateFB

    I am big penn state FB fan, but this disgusts me to the point that I'll stop watching PS FB and stop making donations. University knew what Joe did was wrong and thats why he got fired immediately. We don't know what else comes out of this investigation.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:13 am |
    • tallulah13

      Thank you. It's disgusting how many people care more about football than they do about children.

      November 11, 2011 at 1:42 am |
  16. Jim Johnson

    These child abuse crimes at Penn State bring back the bad memories of the once mega powerful Catholic Church in Boston. These horrific child abuse crimes, done by clergy in the Catholic Church, went on for decades with the support of the Vatican.

    The person in charge of the Boston Archdiocese at the time, was one Bernard Law, who facilitated the movement of known pedifile priests across state lines, a violation of federal law. Thanks to then Bush A.G. John Ashcroft, a close personal friend of Bernard Laws, he was never prosecuted.

    Its time for justice to prevail, for the sake of the victims, and their families. Lets bring Bernard Law back to the US in shackles, from his luxury accommodations in Vatican City, for trial and hopefully a life sentence in a 6 x 8 cell.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:12 am |
    • THE BIBLE IS GARBAGE

      WHERE ARE THE BOONDOCK SAINTS?

      November 11, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  17. thes33k3r

    The pope needs to be tried before the international criminal court. It's really pathetic. That's religion for you.

    Read 'The Case of the Pope' by Robertson.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  18. tallulah13

    Atheists always get "how do you know right from wrong without a bible" from true believers. After reading the comments here from christians who are defending the actions of a man who turned a blind eye to child ra.pe - even going so far as calling him a hero - I think that atheists have much higher standards for good than some believers.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:09 am |
  19. THE BIBLE IS GARBAGE

    I WONDER HOW MUCH HIS AUTOGRAPHED PHOTOS ARE GOING TO SELL FOR NOW THAT HIS CAREER IS OVER. NOT THAT I'D EVER BUY ONE BECAUSE I HATE SPORTS. TOO BAD HE DOESN'T GET THE CHAIR BECAUSE HE'S JUST AS GUILTY.

    IF I WERE PRESIDENT I WOULD CAP PROFESSIONAL SPORTS PLAYERS AND COACHES PAY AT THIRTY THOUSAND DOLLARS A YEAR. AND THEN ALL OF THE REVENUE BROUGHT IN BY FAT MEN WHO SALIVATE OVER SPORTS EVERY WEEK AND SWILL TONS OF URINE WATER LIKE COORS LIGHT WOULD GET SENT TO CHARITIES. AND THEN EVERY YEARS, I WOULD MAKE NASA BUILD A ROCKET TO FLY ALL OF THE PROFESSIONAL SPORTS PLAYERS INTO THE SUN. EVERY YEAR YOU COULD HAVE NEW SPORTSMANSMITHS PLAYING GAMES YOU ALL LIKE TO WATCH ON TV. FRESH NEW FACES TO LOOK AT AND YOU WOULDN'T HAVE BRETT FAVRE RETIRING EVERY OTHER YEAR. HOW'D YOU LIKE THAT SPORTS FANS? VOTE FOR ME.

    November 10, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • Dave

      You write in all caps because hitting "shift" then the letter is too much for your tiny brain to handle. It's past your bed time.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:31 am |
    • THE BIBLE IS GARBAGE

      NO, I WRITE IN CAPS BECAUSE PEOPLE LIKE YOU WOULD RATHER DWELL ON THAT INSTEAD OF REAL ISSUES. IT'S LIKE A BUG ZAPPER AND ALL THE MOSQUITOES ARE DRAWN TO IT. IT IS THE EASIEST WAY TO FIGURE OUT WHO THE IDIOTS ARE.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:33 am |
    • Da King

      To the above nonbeliever. You really do fear God. Just get to know his love, your life will change for the better. It's all in the bible. Find a nondenominational christian church and learn and feel the love of god and be blessed.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • THE BIBLE IS GARBAGE

      HAVE YOU EVER READ THE BIBLE? I HAVE. COVER TO COVER AT LEAST A DOZEN TIMES. I BROKE OUT THE HIGHLIGHTER AND HIGHLIGHTED ALL OF THE CONTRADICTIONS AND BROKEN PROMISES. I THEN GAVE THAT BIBLE TO A PASTOR AND YOU KNOW WHAT HE DID? HE BECAME AN ATHEIST BECAUSE HE HAD NEVER READ ANY OF WHAT WAS HIGHLGHTED BEFORE. HE ONLY PREACHED WHAT HE WAS TAUGHT TO PREACH. HE NEVER KNEW WHAT WAS REALLY IN THE BIBLE WHICH SPEAKS FOR ABOUT 99% OF CHRISTIANS. THERE IS NO GOD TO FEAR. WHAT I FEAR IS WHEN I HAVE REALLY BAD GAS AND SOMETIMES I CAN'T TELL IF IT'S JUST GAS OR SOME LIQUID CAME OUT WITH IT. IF I'M HOME I CAN CHANGE MY SHORTS, BUT IF I'M OUT IN PUBLIC THIS PRESENTS A SERIOUS PROBLEM.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:48 am |
    • claybigsby

      "To the above nonbeliever. You really do fear God. Just get to know his love, your life will change for the better. It's all in the bible. Find a nondenominational christian church and learn and feel the love of god and be blessed."

      @DaKing: You really must fear death if you need to cling to bronze aged myths. I hope you realize that the bible you speak of was written by fallible men, actually 30+ men over 1500 years. And dont give me the argument that they were influenced by god. That is all according to man, so if you want to believe what men say, go right ahead. I for one will be skeptical of anything man says. You dont know that your religion is "TRUE". You think its true and you have faith its true. Thats different than being true. Don't kid yourself.

      November 11, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  20. Dee

    I was abused - too bad it wasn't by someone who was rich and had some money I could go after - your message to Laurie is disgusting I sure hope you never become a parent.

    November 10, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Da King

      I'm very sorry to hear that Dee.

      November 11, 2011 at 12:54 am |
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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.