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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. truthfl1

    What? They have a full size cut-out of this man Paterno? This idol worship is really pathetic. These students seem in

    desperate need for some meaning in their lives. This guy is no Benjamin Franklin, why the statue? Students should

    volunteer at homeless shelter, do good for others. This focus on hero worship is unhealthy and the child abuse

    enabler doesn't deserve it. Get a life students, grow up and quit destroying property. Try an anger mgt class while

    you're at it. You've made Penn State look worse than it did last night.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  2. Carmen

    It's a shame that the coaches just put a black mark on the university and now the students rioting are. I would think the students would feel ashamed of what happened on their campus and instead would light candles for the victums. It only goes to show why it was covered up for so long. Why else are they behaving like that?
    He was a great football coach, but he wasn't a great man. He did nothing.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Par for the course

      Obviously Penn State students care more about football than protecting children or bringing a serial child molestor and those who protected him to justice.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • No Words

      The candles will be lit. Many students are so appalled by students rioting. See this: http://onwardstate.com/2011/11/10/may-no-act-of-ours-bring-shame-the-riot-that-never-should-have-happened/

      November 10, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  3. Jueceman

    People who say Joe didn't do enough obviously think that every person is a investigator and has the right to throw around accusations of molestation made by a graduate assistant they they don't know.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Credenza

      Same applies to the Catholic Church then, yes?

      November 10, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Mei

      The percentage of offenders in the Church is extremely low compared to most organizations in the world, but the media would have you assume otherwise. Not to mention, the majority of abuse happens in the homes of victims and other friends/relatives of the victim (not clergy).

      November 10, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • Meya

      Joe isn't an investigator which is exactly why he should've reported it to the police. So better to just not say anything because he didn't know the student assistant very well then to say something and possibly save a child from harm. In the end he got what he deserved. Had he or anybody else said something back then, Sandusky would have been the only bad guy and the rest would have been regarded as upstanding citizens not POS cowards.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  4. Tom

    When I heard about the Penn. State mess, the first thing that came to my mind was the Catholic Church.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Credenza

      The only difference is that Paterno has hundreds, if not thousands of fans screaming for his re-instatement AFTER covering up abuse!

      November 10, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  5. Nacho1

    This called over reaching........comparing Penn State to the Catholic church is demonic! OK! You are battering the Catholic church.......what about OTHER churches that have been doing this such as the Baptist and the Methodist and the Jewish and OTHER of the protestant churches? WHY do you key on Catholicism? Is the attorney who stated this looking for a lawsuit based on his OPINION and not on fact that includes other denominations? Really! CNN you can do better than this. You are turning from ethical news to modern day witchhunts. Could your network also be held liable?

    November 10, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Credenza

      Well said Nacho. And true!

      November 10, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Kay

      The poor poor picked on Catholic Church. Wah! Wah! They knowingly shelter pedophiles from prosecution under the law and the best you can offer is a whine about how other demoninations weren't mentioned?

      November 10, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  6. Kay

    The article hit the nail on the head, IMO, in pointing out the idolatry that is lavished on both the football team and the church. Idolatry of every kind blinds people to the things that really matter.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Nacho1

      Please include other religious denominations who also IDOLIZE Jesus Christ! Are you a moron? Joe Paterno is NO idolized...he is RESPECTED by the student body. Later after all is said and done you might find that the trustees of the school KNEW about this long before Joe Paterno found out. He did what he was supposed to do...he reported it to the President and the President reports to the trustees. It is call chain of command in ALL businesses! Wake up lady....your slip is showing!

      November 10, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Kay

      Idolize Jesus? WTH? I was talking about idolatry in general. Who cares if it's Joe Paterno, the RCC, Jesus, or Brittany Spears? Good grief your panties are in a bunch.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Kay

      Teachers, just like nurses, doctors, and others, are required BY LAW to report abuse to the POLICE. He did not do that. He failed.

      And if you think there aren't people who idolize him them you're not paying attention.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Ed Ludt

      Any who is going to decide what really matters? You? Popular vote? The Oscars? Your comment is not at all helpful to the issue.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  7. UglyTruth

    A big difference the RCC has abused children for many many years. It seems that all of the leaders and figures of authority have hidden child abuse.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  8. dctesla

    According to the indictment, both Sandusky and his wife tried to call one of the victims as he was making his testimony to the grand jury. I can't believe Sandusky is out on bail considering this and the story of the DA who disappeared while investigating Sandusky. His car was found in a parking lot with his laptop and the hard drive removed. He was never found or his body. There needs to be an FBI investigation on what's going on here and Sandusky's bail revoked.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Jueceman

      That was a hard nosed DA who probably took bribes. You don't think somebody would have a person like that killed. DA's fear for their lives. All of them.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  9. JohnnyDontBeliveIt

    Gosh, I hope no-one defaces or tips over that bronze statue

    November 10, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Kay

      .. 5.. 4.. 3.. 2..

      November 10, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  10. thecityofjoy

    Interesting questions:
    Why did it take so long for the abuse at Penn State to come out
    Who leaked out the abuse case ?
    Has the university apologized to the families of these boys?

    November 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  11. sandiego1969

    Jeff Anderson gives ambulance chasers a bad name. Remember, behind all his righteous indignation is a fee of 40% of the settlement plus expenses... reference his yacht, private jet et.al. Just a man of the people looking out for the little guy. Lapsed Catholic and alcoholic.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • News Flash

      And just how many abuse victims have you assisted ?

      November 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  12. Stonesrule

    This "parallel" is quite a stretch.....and frankly, silly. Do you REALLY think there's a connection here?!

    November 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      A comparable, not a connection. Or so I hope.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  13. joeseattle

    What a pile of excrement. The Penn State matter and the Catholic Church (neither of which have I any reason to champion) parallel eachother so superficially that only someone ignorant about both could think them worth comparing.

    Talking out of you a$$ journalism at its finest.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  14. Tom

    Listen, all you D-bags that are mad b/c Joe was fired and he didn't do anything wrong are crazy. Even the slights wiff of actions like these require follow up and greater scrutintiy. He swept this and did nothing! He deserved to be let go and should feel strong guilt for every child touched after he heard about this in 2002.

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

      So you might have a job right? You think you can just throw around accusations with no proof and you're not an investigator?

      November 10, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  15. Michelle

    It appears the anti Catholic media will jump at any chance to smear the Church. This situation at Penn State had nothing to do with the Church so why the article. Why would you expect a comment from the US Bishops this has nothing to do with them. Abuse is not just within the Catholic Church and this occurrence has no connection to the Church so why the Church bashing? Ridiculous! Just as many will say that the actions of a few at Penn State will not darken what Penn State stands for the Church states the same. This article is shameful.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      Go get that messenger, Michelle.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Tom

      Right Penn State isn't nearly as bad and the catholic church.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • closetiguana

      When you defend the Church's actions you defend their actions.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • onexnwykr

      The church did this all to itself. Raised catholic. NO MORE. Glad my grandkids being raised something else.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • rll

      The comparison is showing how people in power take advantage of children and they use there power and influance to cover up the crime. These events are shamefull to the Catholic Church and Pen State. I surely hope more people responsible for the Pen State cover up serve time in prison then those who covered up the Catholic Church cover up... Sad days in the history of mankind....

      November 10, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  16. JohnnyDontBeliveIt

    That bronze statue looks like it could be tipped over & defaced. Gosh, I hope nothing happens to it.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  17. ReligiousCrook

    I bet U. Penn has more than 1 Pedo. It's so sad that only one got caught.

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

      I bet you there's plenty of other universities that have pedophiles too

      November 10, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  18. Nick

    Talk about lazy journalism. This is like comparing a man who murders someone (or multiple people) to the mafia. Silly.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      Or like comparing some people who hide horrible criminals, to some people who hide horrible criminals. The nerve!

      November 10, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  19. Jim

    The author draws an analogy, provides little support for it, and then undercuts his own thesis by noting that heads rolled at Penn State. Perhaps because it undercut his thesis further the author declined to note that besides the perpetrator exactly two individuals at Penn State are to blame. According to the author the parallels are A) they are run by males and B) uh, actually that’s the only one. Another straining-to-be-profound article displayed front and center on CNN. Maybe one day I will understand why they do that.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  20. Jueceman

    Joe did nothing wrong for this was a issue bigger than the University itself. If everyone knew everything or could "see it coming" or "investigated further" with everything then we could not have a free functioning society. Moral obligations end at home and rank-in-file at work. No child tells their father what to do no matter how wrong the father is and the same goes for Joe Paterno who was not the person who does investigations and hands out punishment. That power falls in the hands of University officials. University administrative officials didn't want the big fallout at the time, and honestly, whoever were asking for their heads now, would be asking for their heads then. They waited, they're fired now, and Sandusky is in jail. The only difference is that they collected more checks than they would if they came out earlier. Good for them. As far as justice for the victims, society failed them rather than a University. If they could be taken advantage of by Sandusky, then anyone could have. Its apart of growing up. dealing with people who may abuse their authority. Society is all of our children, father, and mothers. Be careful who praise and follow, but then again, how much of each other do we really know behind closed doors

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

      Joe did nothing right. That is the problem. Just like the RCC.

      November 10, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Jueceman

      Joe reported to his superiors and testified to a grand jury about what he was told by some random dude. If someone you don't know walked up to you and said your co-worker molestes children, how would you handle

      November 10, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Neutral

      I completely agree with you Jueceman

      November 10, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
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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.