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. Nerak

    This whole issue is just disgusting. The police should have been called in the first time someone witnessed the abuse. Instead, an athletic department decided to DO NOTHING rather than prevent other victims from being assaulted.....same as churches.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Josh

      The witnesses to these boys being molested, should have immediately taking the boys away from Sandusky, to ensure they were safe. To not, IMHO, makes them just as guilty.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  2. dowdotica

    knew a kid when i was young, got molested, the parents and the school made it out to sound like it was the kids fault. Worst yet once the scandal broke that poor kid wound up having to pretty much fight his way through the rest of his school years, changing schools 3 times all because of the bullying that ensued. times have not changed nor has the ethic of the catholic church. That same kid who went on to community college also got jacked by some christain dirt bags that told the sports director he was stealing stuff from the gym. Uh...like what? basket balls? make a long story short, he fought the little Prix with the dean of the school and while he left that job was given another in a different department. point of story? well i use to see these people with this shirt that said "moral" majority seems more to me like their shirts should read immoral hypocrisy! Our society is going in the toilet and the sooner we bring back old school prisons and jailing (you know the once in humane kind) maybe people would be less prone to try to push the criminal envelope. I knew this ex con once said he lived better in jail then he did out? go figure.....

    November 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  3. My God's Bigger Than Yours

    Anyone and everyone who had knowledge of this and did nothing to stop it deserves to be fired at the very least.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  4. Clay

    Dan Patrick said it best to Paterno: " Stay in your house and shut up, don't come outside for a hero's welcome, you don't deserve it "

    November 10, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  5. Joe

    If Only football coaches were allowed to Marry we wouldn't have this problem.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  6. TriXen

    @jimbo LOL

    November 10, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  7. jimbo

    What does the Penn State Athletic Department and Walmart have in common?

    They both have boys underwear half off.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  8. RealityCheck

    Leave it to CNN to try to twist the facts to connect the unconnected. No wonder CNN is in the cellar in ratings.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  9. Dr.Tong


    November 10, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • momomiester

      Spoken like a true idiot. Amazing how you tards all have convicted Joe P already without a trail. Of course with your limited mental capacity, you assume that Joe was on top of every complaint for the last 60yrs! Really? This was an allegation which he brought to the attention of his bosses. They dropped the ball. At least the coach is due some review rather than just firing him. You're assuming he knew more about it when it could of been on allegation and he might of known nothing more. Why no investigation? Cause his bosses are covering their incompetence.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  10. Diego Bernal Torres


    November 10, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Diego Bernal Torres

      I am a student at Penn State and this is to show support for the victims.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  11. dean139919

    i think the people who say the paterno is the scapegoat in all of this are wrong! this man knew what sandusky was capable of and for someone like paterno who prides himself in developing young men into better athletes, scholars, and individuals, to me this is the exact opposite. the only good thing that comes of all of this is that paterno's image will tarnish and people in the future who witness any hanus crime can revert back to this incident and realize what the proper thing to do is. to quote the late janis joplin "don't compromise yourself. your all you've got". paterno compromised himself in making the decision that he made and will live with it now.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  12. Jason

    Wow CNN ~~ a more blatent case of anti-Catholic reporting I've yet to witness ... sad.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Father Dan

      I know! Why won't they leave us and our precious alter boys alone?

      November 10, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Ann

      is anything that is critical of the church anti-catholic? maybe you should open up your eyes and take a look at what you are believing in. covering up abuse of children is illegal, no matter who does it. everyone knows the right thing to do, with or without god. mythology is myth not truth.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Jeff

      Jason, The fact that you don't see the parallel is part of the problem. People want to revere a church that has allowed unspeakable crimes to be committed against children in the name of protecting their "business." Penn State did the same thing. As a Catholic, I am revolted that the man elected Pope is the man who crafted the policy that shifted pedophile priests around the world to avoid detection. Paterno did his legal duty, so he doesn't deserve prosecution. But his legend is tarnished because he didn't do his moral, ethic, and (some would say) Christian duty to protect children.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  13. State Penn Alum

    Oh puh-leeze! Penn State and the Cat-Holics? LOL. Hey, how about parallels between Count Chocula and Dracula. Anything to drag any kind of religion into something. Try again...

    November 10, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • meg d

      Sorry you are in denial about your schools football program. Hopefully you will come to terms with what these men did. But instead of priest, they are the good old boys protecting thier beloved football game instead of protecting little boys.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • Carl

      Meg, Meg, Meg

      Man, Meg, not Men as in plural. Further, the "man" was not a part of the program. Try checking the facts before you say stupid things.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Jeff

      The fact that you don't see the parallel is part of the problem. People want to revere a church that has allowed unspeakable crimes to be committed against children in the name of protecting their "business." Penn State did the same thing. As a Catholic, I am revolted that the man elected Pope is the man who crafted the policy that shifted pedophile priests around the world to avoid detection. As a Penn State alum you should be ashamed of what your school allowed to continue. The fact that you don't shows your lack of moral core.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  14. meg d

    All these sick men covering up something like this for football. The tentacles of this is much deeper than what is being reported right now. The NCAA and/or the governor of PA since it is a state school, needs to shut down this schools football season and maybe even the entire sports department until this investigation is over. What else have these men have been covering up all these years, I could only imagine. And now there is a missing DA that was investigating this? This is just an embarrassment to this country.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  15. DaVinci64

    I think some people may feel deceived by Paterno, some are experiencing cognizant dissonance and their poor little brains just can’t resolve the conflict that the making of a good coach is not the making of a good person.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  16. Amy

    Are we forgetting that the authorities (police, Child Protective Services) knew about alleged abuse as early as 1998. That's what led to the departure of Sandusky from Penn State. I don't condone what university officials did or did not do, but I think the authorities who did nothing after being alerted by one of the victim's mothers are just as guilty and should be held to task. They deal with these types of issues every day and are trained professionals. If even they didn't do anything, what makes us think that individuals who aren't trained in these issues should be held more responsible for the outcome?

    November 10, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Joe

      They reported it to the authorities directly above them at the university and they covered it up. The one time it was investigated, the DA, after police were in the next room when Sandusky apologized for his 'wrong' behavior, said there wasn't enough evidence, and then he went missing and has never been found. This might be a lot bigger cover up than we know yet.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  17. James Ullman

    Excellent article, but not entirely accurate. Cardinal Law in Boston was fired-removed from office. Also, several other bishops who were themselves pedophiles were removed, but the other offending bishops who covered up, shuffled offending priests around, tried to intimate or silence victims, and failed to inform authorities, are unfortunately still in office.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • baba

      I like the comparison of apples to oranges- must be the same! right? Nobody looks into the school systems, expecially New York, for the abuse. Catholics are being persecuted.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Tim

      Cardinal Law was not fired, he left the country and moved to the Vatican, got promoted to a nothing job and will not return to the US. No one in the Church as yet to take a fall for abuse.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Todd S

      Cardinal Law still works with the Catholic Church. He just left the country.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Domini

      Cardinal Law left the country to avoid arrest and deposition. He is still a cardinal in good standing. He has a prestigious post and was actually promoted.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  18. Brian

    "you can kiss up to the anti-catholics by running your little association game.".....................................All the "anti-Catholics" I know are former Catholics.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Nope

      I prefer the term "recovering Catholic".

      November 10, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  19. robert feingold

    It is outrageous that then Attorney General Tom Reilly did not prosecute Cardinal Law for his coverup and enabling continued child abuse. It is even more outrageous that the Vatican has continuously shielded Cardinal Law by having him serve as the Archpriest of the Bascilica in Rome. Nothing has changed.

    November 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  20. James

    “Not one bishop, archbishop or cardinal has been fired or disciplined. Those are the real criminals & pedophiles who need to be incarcerated !

    November 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
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.