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. Move the game

    If I were the Nebraska head coach I'd make them move the game to Nebraska and out the the Happy Valley-I wouldn't want any of my players showering in those locker rooms!!

    November 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • E

      That is hillarious! Make sure they bring Soap on a Rope! Do NOT bend over in Happy Valley! Gettin a little too happy in dem showers! Hey, where's the priests in all this?

      November 10, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  2. OvrHyped

    The differences are obvious:
    one predator over a fixed period of time versus Hundreds over centuries
    The hunt for the guilty resulted in the highest ranking officials to fall versus a Pope (and those who preceded him) to remain in power
    Speculation of a cover-up versus a proven conspiracy

    November 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  3. skog

    CNN, once again taking any swipe at the christian religion they can by trying to associate the recent scandal with the church. Yet they barely have the courage to mention muslim or islam when talking about terrorist attacks.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Nadine

      ...I'm sure they will - in the next Muslim-imams-screwing-little-boys scandal. You obviously never saw a Christian hole you couldn't bury your head in.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  4. Shoe Mangus


    November 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  5. jennyy

    why should the mormon and catholic churches have all the fun

    November 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Mike-Bell

      The secular has more fun. What accountability is there?
      It's harder to guilt someone for the same offences as these when they are void of being able to sense shame or guilt.
      It's not surprising though that bullies pick on those that they can manipulate by provoking guilt, shame, etc ... to the point of enhancing insecurity. Too many justify their own guilt in such activities by outing a few that are ashamed of violating their aspired standards. Throw enough stones and eventually some will come flying back.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  6. Matt

    The product of your horrible journalistic efforts in addition to the media masses are evident in the stupid people who have posted here – look at the comment from King Nutmost – who thinks that joe paterno was the pedophile involved – Get your facts straight on such a serious matter or don't open your mouth – its because of the irresponsible coverage you and your media brethern spew – just for viewers/readers and MONEY – so get of your high horse – how does one truly terrible pedophile compare to hundreds if not thousands of such who infested the Catholic Church – You are a pure sensationalist without any shread of professionalism – Taking the easiest path to a column – Your simply a mental midget

    November 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • OvrHyped

      agree 100% but the word is You're not your. Tough error when calling the author a lazy moron (which might be possible)

      November 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • BKS

      Why are you the comment police.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  7. Why?

    Totally agree w/ u Richard! The witness is just as guilty 4 not pulling Sandusky off the 10 yr. old!

    November 10, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • BKS

      Water hose him off like a dog.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  8. Doug

    east coast pedo network – the trail will lead to many rich and famous people – including law enforcement, secrecy enforced by Masonic standards/relations. Pedos are pros at infiltrating social networks – big $$$ involved.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • mike


      November 10, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  9. Cicero

    The catholic church scandals are worst than this one.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Mike-Bell

      Pull back the curtain a bit more.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  10. Seriously

    RightTurnClyde: I hope you are never around if I am attacked. You will just turn away and not help. You are as bad as these guys for not reporting. karma dude, it comes around!

    November 10, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      Well I have been there/done that .. I'll tell you when the police "person" takes you seriously .. you tell . "look lady, I am going get my 9mm and shoot the guy doing .. so send somebody out to investigate the shooting .." THEN they will send somebody out (and WHO do you think they are interested in? the criminal .... OR you??) That's why I do not call them (EVER)... they don't care if somebody is being attacked, mugged, molested, beaten, gang fight, run over, DUI .. but they get real peeved if you talk about a gun.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  11. Mike-Bell

    It's a perfect example of why governance should not be concentrated under a 'select' few. Their abuse of power and creating dependency results in the subordinate being victimized, the non-conformist being ostracized, and their beneficiaries becoming a blind following of sheep.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  12. J. Alejandro

    Proof that pedofilia is a malady across society, not the exclusive disease of the church, nor is it caused by celibacy. So I wonder how many people are going to stop believing in college sports. Yet, this is not enough so now it is because "Both are managed by male dominated-hierarchies." I wonder how may lesbian/female scandals are being swept under the rug.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Mike-Bell

      It's not limited to pedophilia.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • GodPot

      I don't believe in college sports!! It's just CGI video game avatars bashing each other for control of a used pig skin I watch every Saturday!!

      November 10, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  13. Reality

    Why did today's pope, prelates, preachers. rabbis, football coaches et so focused on god or sport pay no attention to se-xual sins within?


    Obviously ordination in any religion is not assurance of good behavior !!!!!

    Neither is coronation!!! e.g. Henry VIII, King David.

    Neither is marriage as 50% of those men convicted of pedophilia are married.

    Neither is being elected president of the USA!! e.g. Billy "I did not have se-x with that girl" Clinton, John "Marilyn Monroe" Kennedy"

    Neither is possessing super athletic skill!!! e.g. Tiger "I am so sorry for getting caught" Woods.

    Neither is being an atheist or pagan since pedophilia is present in all walks of life.

    If someone is guilty of a crime in this litany of "neithers" they should or should have been penalized as the law dictates to include jail terms for pedophiliacs (priests, rabbis, evangelicals, boy scout leaders, married men/women, football coaches), divorce for adultery (Clinton, Kennedy, Woods), jail terms for obstruction of justice (Clinton, Cardinal Law, Paterno? and the Penn State administrators) and the death penalty or life in prison for murder ("Kings David and Henry VIII).

    November 10, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  14. Victoria Cendrowski

    Penn State did the right thing by firing its president and football coach. The Catholic Church is full of hypocrisy. I do not understand how any one can support the Catholic Church.

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

      Most people that attend the Catholic Church (at least in the US) don't worship their priests or even the Pope. We Catholics recognize that these are simply people. We worship God and his son Jesus and try to learn from their teachings. The vast majority of Catholics are appalled by the abuse that's gone over the years in the Church. Unfortunately, abuse like this happens everywhere (other churches and religions, schools, universities, etc.).

      November 10, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  15. SW

    It was only a matter of time before some misguided CNN recalcitrant tried to relate the church and Penn State. I'm only surprised it took this long.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • mendacitysux

      Yes completely off base. One of their members molested children and the other....... Wait one covered it up and the other......

      November 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  16. Doug

    Masonic Ritual Abuse

    November 10, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  17. human race

    to all the recruits that are gonna go there...............DONT DROP THE SOAP IN THOSE SHOWERS........or coach gonna do the special play!!!!!

    November 10, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • mo77im

      I see that they allow internet use in your prison.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  18. RightTurnClyde

    Bear in mind that if you called the FBI or you local police today and reported anything other than a traffic accident they would (a) not believe you and (b) investigate you first and (c) you will probably be sued and left penniless for doing it - so nobody does. Nobody reports anything. Witness the woman who reported a guy breaking into a house in Cambridge - SHE became the bad person for not minding her own business because the guy break in was the prez's buddy. Look at Arizona for enforcing it's portion of the U.S. border. I(f you report a problem you ARE the problem. (see no evil and speak no evil)

    November 10, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  19. human race

    LINEBACKER U...................no longer.......................MOLEST-A-BOY-U......thats catchy.....

    November 10, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  20. BP

    Seriously, this article is Journalistic TRASH! It is an ameturish attempt at an clandestine opinion piece.
    Really CNN you can do better than this. Maybe Dan Gilgoff should be reassigned to the Pet Obituary section.
    Tisk tisk!

    November 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • OK

      Learn to use your own words properly before criticizing someone elses.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Nadine

      Why in the world do you say that? I find your tsk tsks pretty comical when you don't bother explaining what you're tsk-ing about.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • fyi

      I've posted about 5 comments and CNN is deleting them and censoring them. All have been clean. I am simply pointing out the fact that the crimes mentioned are under-reported throughout society. They completely ignore that and instead attack the church.

      November 10, 2011 at 5:39 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.