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. richard

    Now its time to look at Mike McQueary, he should be fired to and not allowed to coach, come on 28 years old 6'4" 220 lbs and does not even stop what he witnessed nor call the police, I would not ever want my child coached by that person either. Come on BOARD look at the WHOLE picture.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Caral from SoCal

      I have been wondering that same thing (I did not know how old/big he was, but obviously in his 20;s). Why did that not look like an emergency to him? Obviously he was upset, but not upset enough to act? And what about the janitor, who was so grieved back in 2000 that his coworkers thought he would have a heart attack? This is all in the grand jury report – a whole shift of janitors witnessed a similar incident two years prior to McQueary. They were all afraid for their jobs? "All it takes for the wicked to prosper is for good men to do nothing" – never has this been as certain as today.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      If you report a violent crime IN PROGRESS they get mad at YOU. I've done it (burglaries) .. they really do not want to respond to crimes .. so they do not like you. They make an issue out of you. First time I stood watching them as the broke in and took computers and the PD did not want the call, tried to hand it to another PD, then sent a cop an hour after the crooks left. Second time they drive into a business with a car (opened the front door) and took an ATM and they did not want the call .. dilly dallied .. sent one cop 80 minutes later (and he was annoyed to make out the report).

      November 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      If you report a violent crime IN PROGRESS they get mad at YOU. . they really do not want to respond to crimes .. so they do not like you. They make an i.s.s.u.e out of you. First time I stood watching them as the broke in and took computers and the PD did not want the call, tried to hand it to another PD, then sent a cop an hour after the crooks left. Second time the crooks drive into a business with a car (opened the front door) and took an A.T.M. and they did not want the call .. d.i.l.l.y d.a.l.l..i.ed .. sent one cop 80 minutes later (and he was a.n.n.o..y.e.d. to make out the report).

      November 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  2. Why?

    My marriage ended b cuz of Father Porter. May Jerry Sandusky FRY in hell.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  3. Jenny

    Hi, readers. I'm a Penn State student living off campus in State College, PA. What's happened here is a national tragedy that will (deservedly) harm this school for years to come. The rioters in the street are just ignorant kids looking for a good time. Those of us that know what has happened are appalled – and shamed. But CNN is failing when they try to compare the Penn State events to Catholic abuses. Here's why.

    Those involved have been, or will soon be, terminated. They will never work in similar capacities again. Many will be prosecuted for Failure to Notify or Felony Perjury (or both) and will be sentenced accordingly. Sandusky will go to jail – but he won't be there long before "jailhouse justice" is done. Paterno will die a disgraced man. Spanier will retire and disappear into the mist. Penn State has the highest tuition in the country for a state school, and that will soon change too.

    We here in central Pennsylvania know that the real story is what happened in 1998, when Sandusky was caught molesting a child, apologized to the mother, and was subsequently reported to State College, PA law enforcement. The State College District Attorney, Ray Gricar, declined to press charges against Sandusky. Shortly thereafter, Gricar disappeared without a trace. They found his car parked, and his laptop in a river, the hard drive stripped. They never found either Gricar or his body.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Domini

      True. In the Catholic Church, the police have only arrested one bishop. None have been fired, and there's little accountability to force bishops to follow the church's recommended rules on how to handle abuse. The Pope himself is tainted by the scandal. Paterno and others tainted by this scandal are being fired (Cardinal Law was never "fired", prosecuted, etc.) Penn State is handling this situation far better than the catholic Church ever did. I say that as a still-practicing Catholic trying to change the church from within. The students who rioted are idiots and deserve the scorn of the country. The students who want to fundraise and "blue out" the game this week deserve sympathy.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • cpeters

      My take: you students then should also demand that the Trustees all be terminated as well.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
  4. Tim

    I was wondering when some schmuck was going to try and make hay out of this tragedy.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  5. dave roberts

    dan, you should find another line of work. unless PSU has hundreds af coaches and administrators who were pedophiles, comparing this to the Catholoc Church in ridiculous. get a job!

    November 10, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  6. jimbo

    The difference is Catholics will not act like bafoons and riot if those associated with the scandals were sent to prison. Shows how idiotic some of the students at Penn State are. They are more concerned with some medicre coach losing his job than the well being and sympathy of the children that will be forever damaged by this. Sickening.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  7. King Nutmost the Rash

    Most disturbing. Are the students of Penn State nuts? They actually appear to support pedophilia by a coach of their precious football team. This will damage the reputation of Penn State and anyone who graduates from there for many years. Guess what question prospective employers will ask?

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

    About time someone drew this striking comparison.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  9. Liz

    To J.W. - NO! Parishoners do NOT stick by their accused priests. It's their kids the priest had access too. You should do some hard research before spouting off that comment. If my research is correct, I don't find any incidents of parishoners
    rallying, and marching and rioting to keep a priest who abused kids. "They have come to trust the priest ..........". Are you a Catholic? You keep saying "they", which makes me think you aren't. And again, you are wrong. In light of all that has occurred, our children are cautioned against EVERYone, including priests, teachers, coaches, any leader or authority figure with access to our children. Trust NO one with your children. Educate them and listen to them if they talk about a concern or fear. If they don't want to join a team, or act differently/uncomfrotable around an adult that should be trusted, start asking questions. And if an adult shows unusual interest in your child, or seeks out social functions with him/her, ask why. Pay attention. Kids often use quiet or reluctant behavior and body language that should send up bright red flags.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • cm1966

      No, because all they did with the priests is move them to another church for the crime to start over with other children. At least PSU has finally had the balls to fire some people. What did the church ever do to stop the crime of assaulting children?

      November 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • BKS

      Why are you the comment police .

      November 10, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  10. John

    So what ever happened to reporting facts? now the media has resorted to conjecture, speculation. No need for due process anymore, it's just your guilty and we will exploit your coverage for our own gain.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  11. jeepster455

    It's called "the old boy's club" and is prevalent in many male-dominated powerful sectors, financial, religious, and now, although it would have never occurred to me, at the university level. I hear that there will be new allegations against this sicko Sandusky, and it involves pimping out his young victims to rich donors. How do you cover up for someone so vile and morally bereft? In my view, these people who covered up are as guilty as the perpetrator. So shameful and tragic on so many levels.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  12. james

    Wow CNN, really felt the need to take another unfounded shot at Christainity again? Slow news week? No intelligent writers around?

    November 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Nadine

      James: CNN didn't "take a swipe" at Christianity. They reminded us of the recent huge scandals in the Catholic Church. Not the same thing. Secondly, if the Catholic Church wants to stop being "swiped" at, then they should stop taking swipes at innocent children. If most people–including most Catholics–now regard the Church very skeptically, it's the Church's fault - not the media.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • kam

      My thoughts exactly. More liberal meda trying to drag Christians (actually God who is without sin) into the mud. Just because you are a Christian doesn't mean you're perfect, or without sin. Humans are and will always be sinners, God is perfect and His love is perfect. We will all (followers of Christ....believers) share in His Glory someday. Until then we will struggle with sin and imperfection. Beleive, repent, be forgiven, and share the Kingdom. Until then, we are not yet in the image of Christ.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  13. Mitch

    Parallel? Not hardly. Similar maybe. Unfortunately the pope and the rest of the church hierarchy are not being held to the same standards as Penn State officials.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  14. Della

    So we are in agreement: Sick is Sick, no matter where it takes place.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • sugarland


      November 11, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  15. John

    Regarding voting age: If you are old enough to die for your country, you're old enough to vote.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      BUT .. the majority of them refuse to serve their country .. and they let aliens with green cards go in their place. So who really earned the right?

      November 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  16. Maria Galliani

    That simply shows what is the value in the general public, especially young people. Education failure...That's how Penn State's students are showing, the only thing matters in the world is football. Any high school seniors interested in applying Penn State now?

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

      and that's why Penn State, with Stanford are the only two top 25 football teams listed With a top ten Graduation Rate (87%) out of the other 120 FBS programs..Learn your facts before smearing someone else.....

      November 10, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • jimbo

      John, I think if they can cover up a pedophile scandal for years they to better their football team they can manage to skew a few grades and allow the players to graduate...they lost all credit.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • BKS

      Why John are you the comment police.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  17. Rick Mc

    I was always proud of Penn State and happy to let people know I graduated from a good school.

    The last week I am ASHAMED and really am upset. I feel betrayed by the people involved with this mess.

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

      That is what is wrong with the kind of lynch mob mentality we see today – blanket condemnation and then l.u.s.t. for vengeance (with a vengeance) Duke U., the I.M.F guy in NYC, Casey Anthony It is actually (frightening) to see the cry for some kind of lynching .. ceremonial sacrifice (to appease whom? they do not believe in God - and God does not want sacrifices). They (press, DA-politician, public) trashed Duke U. for a cheap p.r.o.s.t.i.t.u.t.e (and ALL of the players). An on-line lawyer (woman) rants about cases on trial to the entire nation. It's like the Gerry Springer show but with universities and corporations. Really sick.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  18. Ginny

    Bless me father for I have sinned................
    Say three hail Marys and three our father's..........
    Poof, all gone.

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

      Do you normally like showing the world how ignorant you are?

      November 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • kam

      I realize you are being sarcastic. The TRUTH is to ask GOD for forgiveness. He will give it freely to anyone...including me and you, and the worst (as we deem it) sinners. Whoever is without sin, cast the fist stone. In God's eyes, we are all sinners, and need to repent, and He will give us eternal life. Let'e not act like we are above sin. Let's be less suprised by peoples behavior, and more convicted.
      In Christ,

      November 10, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  19. Lee

    The church will realize their mistake and own up to it in the year 2632. Of course by that time it will be all but extinct.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  20. Benjamin

    Dan Gilgoff is a moron.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:05 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.