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. Dc mortimer

    Oh ,shock and amazement child molesters are every where in society not just the CC .

    November 10, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • PooCorn

      Most of the molestators are catholic.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  2. Sad generation

    The man who walked in on the pedifile should have done something right there. Stopped it and taken the child away from harm. I worry about the future if Penn State students want to defend a grown man who didn't feel compelled enough to demand justice for a child.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  3. Keith

    Anyone who participated in or knew of this crime should at minimum spend the rest of their life in prison. Anyone who supports such a person deserves the same. Moral decay, sickening. "There was no God in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes." There is no God at Penn State. Hopefully the rioters burn the hellhole to the ground.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  4. TrixieRose

    The root of the problem as with all these young people supporting someone who didn't report a child assault to police is they don't see anything wrong with what these men are.So it's just a step down that it was done to a child,as they see nothing wrong with the acts between men.Be real,it's our culture now,they don't care about it being a child or not,it's sick and disgusting these young people are heartless and warped.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  5. FUNR

    "...Paterno had reportedly been told about the abuse but declined to notify authorities..." You're a moron! He DID NOT decline to notify authorites. His report to the Athletics Director was an act of notifying the authorities. Look up the definition of *conclusory* reasoning and then examine your asinine opinion piece. But that's right, you're a religion editor or something, so you're used to throwing facts to the wind, sickening windbag.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • Jabberside

      Anyone got a copy of the school handbook? Report should have been made to the Child Protective Services and the Police I think.....not totally positive.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Kay

      PA has mandantory reporting laws that require teachers to report suspected abuse to the state hotline. If you know of suspected abuse and do not report it to the state, you can get your hindparts handed to you in court. Look the laws up for yourself. They're not hard to find.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  6. Kay

    Those of you defending the RCC are sick puppies.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • kansashq

      Hey, Kay,
      Some fathers are accused of being molesters and the mothers stayed silent. Let's abolish the family unit.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • SoCalNurse

      Oh grow up. I never said anything about shutting down the school or the church.

      November 11, 2011 at 2:49 am |
  7. Kay

    Can't post the link, but I would recommend that anyone who is interested look up Pennsylvanias laws on mandantory reporting. They say that, 1. teachers are required to report all suspected abuse to the childabuse hotline, 2. failure to report is a punishable offense.

    The truly strange and sickening part of the law is that clergy and attorneys aren't required to make reports. (and then we wonder how the RCC keeps getting away with helping pedophillic priests avoid being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  8. Sad generation

    Followed the chain of command? what? A grown man walking in on a pedifile abusing a child should be so outraged that there would be no time for chain of command! How ridiculous it sounds to hear that the coach who walked in on him told his boss and he told his boss and he told his boss. Protect those who cannot protect themselves!! I fear for our future if our kids want to protect a Man who did nothing to save a child.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  9. dixiejon

    i never cared for Paterno's demeanor. his default expression was who stepped in dog poo? this might be the answer.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  10. kansashq

    Who made the ultimate decision to not report this coach, and what was the rational? Until you determine this, your article is built on assumptions and second-guessing. It was a disgusting event(s), and I would like to understand how it can be swept under the carpet. Football worship isn't an answer - it's a generalization without any evidence.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  11. Luli

    What was Joe Pa supposed to do? He was supposed to go to the police and say: "Someone told me that he may have seen someone abuse a child." I don't think the police would give much credit. The person that witnessed the abuse is the one who should have gone to the police, he was the who SAW it. But he didn't, did he? McQueary is still coaching with Penn State this Saturday.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • dixiejon

      do you think reporting it would be wrong? lots of criminals are caught by tips to the police right?

      November 10, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Kay

      As a teacher in PA he is a mandated reporter and is required by law to report suspected child abuse to the state's hotline but he didn't. It's really just that simple.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • Jobie

      You're right. It was not his job to go to the police...until day after day, week after week, month after month goes by, and nobody else goes. Then, it's his job to say somthing, and it would have been mine, too.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Luli

      WHy is McQueary who also did not report to police and who actually SAW abuse happen is still employed by Penn State??

      November 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • ICow

      No, he should have said "McQuery, you witnessed this firsthand, correct? Tell me everything you saw. This was Sandusky, huh? Well, I dont' like it either, but you and I are going to go talk to the police tonight."

      November 10, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  12. Luli

    This is dumb.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  13. AuntO'Lion

    I guess I'm in the minority here, but this is sounding like a witch hunt. Joe Paterno did what he was supposed to do. He reported what he knew. He didn't witness the crime so he couldn't go to the police. The Grad student who did witness the assault should have gone to the police. One can't just go and accuse someone of a crime without some sort of witness / or evidence of a crime. So Joe Paterno gets fired and the one who witnessed the assault gets to keep his job and keep on keeping his mouth shut....

    November 10, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • NobodysPoet

      I couldn't agree more – at least about holding the graduate assistant that witnessed the incident accountable. If that individual is still employed at Penn State – they shouldn't be. How do you witness something like this first hand and not feel compelled to report it to police – regardless of the potential ramifications (i.e. job loss, downfall of Penn Football, etc...). I'm surprised the media has not taken this angle – or at least mentioned it. The graduate assistant has some explaining to do...

      November 10, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  14. Corvus1

    When people value sports over human rights, you know something's horribly wrong.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • letushelp

      Treatment is castration.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  15. Lance

    Hey Dan: As a religion editor, perhaps you are familiar with the biblical passage found in the eigth chapter of John? Let me give you a hint–before you, and this mass hysteria of a mob, begin throwing the first stones of "unfulfilled ethical obligations" please read and meditate on it. Oh, you might also want to remove that board from your eye. What say we work together to help the victim instead of carelessly finding a scapegoat for our anger.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Heather

      Thank you so much for saying that Lance!!!

      November 10, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Em

      This horribly written piece fails to recognize an important point. All the abusers are male. Should we vilify all males? In the RCC, the abuse has NOTHING to do with the actual religion & the church has taken much, much action against all the abuse and abusers. Are the abusive priests criminals? yes! Are all priests abusers? Not even close. Less than 2% of all priests of the past 70 years. Same with Penn State. What % of that school is involved w/this? Keep some perspective, do some real research. You can't start blaming the education you receive at Penn for this. The media just makes everything worse.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  16. Jim in Fl;orida

    Actually, college students get like this from watching too much CNN.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • letushelp

      All students supporters for this criminal should be castrated together, to fill the gap of missed education.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  17. Jim in Fl;orida

    Another hatchet job by CNN on Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular.
    Secularist left wing morons who want to make us believe they are journalists.
    The media today is so shallow, so inane, yet so self aggradizing

    November 10, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      Your invisible man in the clouds and his song/himself did a really great job of protecting these innocent boys! god sure works in mysterious ways... what a great creator and savior of all humanity.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  18. Sharon

    The rioting would be understandable if the subject of the outrage was the abuse that occurred and the years long tolerance and coverup of it that ensued. The rioting that occurred because one of those who knew of the crimes and allowed them to continue was fired is only slightly less sickening than the reasons for the firing.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • David

      I think you are missing a comma or two in your sentences. They don't read very well.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  19. O.T.

    Oh boy, CNN found another opportunity to attack Christianity.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Lisa Schaefer

      O.T. I couldn't agree with you more.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • closetiguana

      If you don't hold them accountable and remind them that they aren't above the law they continue... no wait, never-mind.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Corvus1

      Where's that "Help! I'm being oppressed!" macro when you need it?

      November 10, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • Patrick

      If Christianity would stop making it so ridiculously easy to find such fatal errors in their ways, legitimate news sources like CNN wouldn't have to report and "attack" them in the first place. Unless of course reporting facts on anything is an attack, then yes, you are correct.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Heather

      Exactly. Shame on them. Why do I look at their website?

      November 10, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • David

      No group of a billion people is without criticism. Your expectations for the actions of christians as a whole are unreasonable.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Kay

      They are not attacking Christianity. Good grief. The RCC has been shletering pedohpiles from prosecution for years in countries all over the world. If you don't see that the RCC has given itself its own bad name then shame on your for turning a blind eye to all the damage they have done and all the children they have let down.

      What evil posesses someone to say that Christians are being attacked when violations by Christian churches are spoken about?

      November 10, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • Tracie

      Catholic is not apart of christanity; every time you turn around this particular religion is performing horrific acts toward children. How can this be considered apart of what God or Jesus is about. This type of sin is deeply rooted in this particular sect of people.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  20. Bob

    CNN has a vendetta on the Catholic Church. No way else to explain this.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Patrick

      Hardly, the parallels between these two situations are uncanny, as made quite evident in this article. Refusing to recognize the similarities and assuming that there is some kind of vendetta against all Christianity by CNN is ludicrous.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • adamthefirst

      Thats exactly right, cnn hates Christians and loves to print hate material.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Heather

      AGREE Completely. I'm sure we could "parallel" a CNN staffer or two with the same scenario. Ugggh.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:36 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.