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. SoCalDave

    Now here's some sensationalist journalism. Way to pull in the readers CNN....

    November 10, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  2. TonyBigs

    The parallels are what have always paralleled the Evils of pedophilia and infanticide - the Evils of Abortion and Contraception.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • closetiguana

      What's evil about contraception?

      November 10, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      Little Tony, that'll make you popular with women voters.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  3. poulose

    What is wrong with the american educational system?
    This is it !!!!

    November 10, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  4. sassy James

    "decision to fired its president", Is there and editor at CNN? I know most Americans are dumb but if I'm seeing this many mistakes before I can even struggle to the end of the article CNN NEEDS to find A: a decent writer and B: an editor!

    November 10, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Bill F

      This guy is such a complete idiot ! CNN is so horrible and the only "NEWS" org that would hire him.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • michael

      I don't know, but their might be AN editor at CNN.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  5. LastTimeHere

    Wow; talk about sensationalizing for the purpose of a story! And to get statistics correct: the Catholic church has no higher rate of abuse than the general population or ANY OTHER ORGANIZATION, INCLUDING OTHER RELIGIONS. It's simply the reportage that differs. And to link the Penn State scandal to this? I'm done with CNN; I now find the reporting sensational, kind of like the Enquirer.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • Aaron

      Clearly CNN owes you an apology for "sensationalizing" pedophilia. Are you insane or another one of these apologists for the Catholic church, who for DECADES did nothing to address the many issues reported to them by members of their congregations. They then attempted to deflect, confuse, and deny when the scandals broke rather than take responsibility and hand those priest over to the law. Sinead O'Connor was right.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Brat

      You are correct the statistics may be the same between General Population and the Catholic Church on the number of abuses, but Church is the last place you should expect the treatment. The children and the parents expect the church, the priest and the Bishops to have taken a profession that is pure in nature above the normal population. They expect trust and you dont expect the same level of risks sending your child to a bible school compared to sending them to Psychiatric Hospital with pedophiles.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  6. sassy James

    ," including in a Penn State locker room." Great editing CNN,,....

    November 10, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  7. beaz

    The bottom line is that all of these folks are mandated reporters and while they didn't commit the molestation crime they didn't report it ....which is a crime.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  8. Green Hat

    The real people to keep in mind are the children. Stop arguing about who is worse and work on making sure that no child suffers like this again.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • PHIL4553

      Agreed.....I cant believe they are letting McQuery still coach from the booth?!

      November 10, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • kev98

      Follow the story a bit more closely. Paterno is not guilty of a crime. He met is legal obligation by notifying the AD and he will not face any charges

      November 10, 2011 at 6:51 pm |


    November 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Green Hat

      If you are going to rage in all capital letters at least proofread your work. Also, they are all mandated reporters and are all guilty of not fulfilling that obligation.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • PHIL4553

      BAYNE, as a coach myself...my first cause of action would have been to call the police, then notify the school. While I do not fully blame Paterno, he has even taken responsibility for his "non-action," and I can on some level understand because we are all human and make mistakes. Nonetheless, his number one priority is the children. When a parent sends their child off to us, we are entrusted with the well being of these children/young adults. By not following up it does seem that at some level he may have tried to cover it up, or at very least hope the problem would just go away. Instead this piece of ____ was left to continue his disgusting and vile behavior for many more years and to determent of an untold amount of children

      November 10, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • stars

      please read "grand jury report Sandusky" (that's how I found it) and then it is more clear!!! I am tired of hearing "facts" that are not facts.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Aaron

      Phil, are you kidding? Tossing out the "we all make mistakes" card? A mistake is forgetting an anniversary or saying something harsh in anger. Not reporting pedophilia is being an accessory to a crime and a horrific lapse in both ethical and moral character. Such wanton disregard for this kind of act is nearly as bad as the crime itself. Paterno's statue should be melted down, his legacy forever stained by his lack of action and moral courage.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  10. PHIL4553

    What's up with all the hate? I was born in the Catholic faith and have never had the urge to mess with kids, nor have most Catholics. The sins of a few....and when CNN puts it's spin on this, it gets all these idiots all excited. Come on....if this is the case then I would suspect that all Muslims are radical suicide bombers? This is just stupid!

    November 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  11. como1

    I see all the anti christian bigots are here today.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • MadMoh

      Christianity is a vicious Voodoo cult.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • PHIL4553

      In full force unfortunately

      November 10, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • closetiguana

      Can you blame them?

      November 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      Yo. Sign me up. I'm opposed to Christian bigots.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • UglyTruth

      Religion is socially accepted insanity.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  12. *frank*

    The Paterno statue terrifies me.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  13. Greg

    Heroes save children they don't endanger them. Paterno + the Pope = zero heroes

    November 10, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • matt

      Heroes win 409 college football games and two national championships...JoePa=HERO

      November 10, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  14. Mark R

    WHAT? never in my 41yrs did I read an article where I thought "the writer of this article just took a hit off of a bong designed for bigfoot"...

    November 10, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • Bill F

      To bring the Catholic Church into a College scandal is just unwarranted except by the liberal media. CNN hates the Catholic Church , GOD and anything with morals. Dan Gilgoff is not even worthy of having a pen to write for any publication excep the NAZI Gazzette!

      November 10, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  15. Ted Nugent

    The silver lining in this situation is that Jerry is a shoe in for the President of NAMBLA

    November 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Armadillo

      He looks nothing like Marlon Brando...

      November 10, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  16. jimbo

    Aw, come on who is reporting abuse on me? Humor is part of the healing process

    November 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  17. Wisdom

    Just goes to show that pedophilia like alcoholism can be anywhere. It is not Church specific(although I'm sure CNN will try to make ), it is not University specific (although I'm sure CNN would have preferred this to happen at Notre Dame) and it is not job specific(I'm sure there are alcoholics and pedophiles working at CNN).

    November 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Larry69

      Notre Dame is probably wondering what the hubbub is about.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • PHIL4553

      Well put Wisdom

      November 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • whome

      CNN and the rest of the media would have you believe that they are all as pure as the freshly driven snow and there stories are above board.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      In a nutshell: Shielding the pedo-philes from the law is demonstrably an activity of churches and apparently of senior people in the Penn athletic department.

      Inappropriate choice of handle you made for yourself, 'Wisdom'.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  18. Priori

    Such amazing stretches to make connections could lead one to suspect Mr. Gilgoff has a ghostwriter named Gumby.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      Attack the messenger if you like, but the comparison is quite obvious. See thread above.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  19. Don't Jump

    Evict the Pope, sell the Vatican and use the proceeds to pay retribution to the abused kids.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • Josh

      Remember, that Pope John Paul II wanted to take swift action and remove these perverts from the Church. However, Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, vote any such actions. Instead, Ratzinger felt that God, and only God, should step in personally if God felt these young boys should not be molested. The Church nor man should take any actions.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      And as usual, unfortunately, there's no god there to do any such thing. The Christian god simply does not exist.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • kev98

      Zeus Zeuz Zeus......have fun in hell my friend

      November 10, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      kev98, go read up on Pascal's Wager. Don't post again until you understand it.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  20. SCAtheist

    Aren't most of the Penn State idiots Catholic?

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

      It's a state school,moron.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:30 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.