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. Jason

    I'm an atheist and I'm not a sports fan, but come on, CNN. You're just being stupid now. This separates you from extremist FOX News how?

    November 10, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • PooCorn

      This draws a deep parallel between the church and professional sports. It proves one and for all that sports were invented for the purpose of molestating children, just like the church.They are one in the same.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • matt

      So you're saying you're gay? The only guys that don't like sports have always turned out to be gay. I'm just wondering if this holds true with you?

      November 10, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • PooCorn

      So you're saying you don't like sports matt? Is that what you're saying? Because that's what I just read. No, I will not date you.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • beaz

      PooCorn, you're making reading all these posts so entertaining! You crack me up!

      November 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  2. Peter

    The Roman Empire would simply reassign them somewhere else so they could target fresh young boys who are yet unknowing of their crimes.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • PooCorn

      You mean the roman catholic church. FIXED.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • David

      Yes. Yes. There is probably not one single Catholic Church in America or in Ireland where pre-puberty boys weren't asaulted at some point and time. I know from first hand experience.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  3. ryan

    Paterno should be ashamed of himself. his legacy was already established and if he had been a MAN and stepped up and protected the innocent he would have been even more revered. now his statue should be torn down... he should be disgraced and spend the rest of his life in jail. child abusers can NOT be rehabilitated and should have mandatory life sentences.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • BlafRed CV

      STFU CNN.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  4. Keith

    That h0m0 Jerry Sandusky should hang. NAMBLA's poster boy would look great with a rope around his neck.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Heather

      II am a huge Football fan and love me some LSU football, but if my guys at LSU were part of a cover up of this sort, I would be doing some hollering that they all should be arrested and held up to pay for their mistakes~~ and the football program be put aside for a while till we could figure out where the priorities needed to be!! No, Paterno wasn't part of the abuse, but he seems to be part of the cover up!! And the kids who rioted last night, they are worthless as far as I'm concerned. It just shows their stupidity in not support the victims!!!!

      November 10, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  5. Jean

    And those who were rioting last night are UNIVERSITY students? Isn't one supposed to hone one's capacity to reason and think in university? I don't grt it.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • GodPot

      Much like religion has little to do with morality and truth, Universities have little to do with reason and thinking.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • letushelp

      CNN release the names of the criminal supporters

      November 10, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  6. NetNinja

    A sad state of affairs. Students rioting and destroying property because a a few men who knew the ugly truth of what was happening and turned thier backs. Because this is what happens when a few men did nothing. They knew the truth and kept it hidden for 20+ years. Then the student body who are sheep and they just proved to everyone and the world what mindless sheep they were went to this mans house to worship a liar.
    They have shown what is truely important and worse yet it will be repeated again because these students worship fame over truth and when enough people hide the truth you raise a nation of bold faced liars.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  7. Boochal

    There are ALWAYS pedophiles in locker rooms.
    America's Addiction to sports is Revolting!

    November 10, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  8. Touchdown

    Of course it's all about football. If he had been a lousy coach, nobody would miss him and everyone would be ready to hang him. When I was in college, football players were allowed to come to the first class, skip every class in between and show up for the final and always managed to get at least a "C" on the exam. Football is god on just about any campus. Look at the salary of the football coach compared to a professor.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  9. Peter

    Paterno's response "What can I say, I'm no longer the coach," Paterno told about 15 students gathered outside his house late Wednesday night. "It's going to take some time to get used to. It's been 61 years."

    If it was me I would be more worried about my salvation then it takes a little getting used to. Shows his character if there was no more to the discussion and reaction then this excerpt

    November 10, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  10. bobby

    it just shows how low down this country has gotten. united states has gone to the dogs, i hope they fry them all.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  11. jemzinthekop

    Jesus is savior! Just like with the church, he sure did a great job of looking after his flock of sheep.

    Maybe even the most ardent right wing religious zealots can read this story and finally let it seep into their brains that there is no Jesus, there is no Lord watching over you and protecting you, and there is no devil... there is only human nature and some of it is good and some of it is bad. In this case it is horrible and if there actually was a hell this rapist would deserve to roast in it.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  12. Kay

    What is truly sick is that teachers, nurses, doctors, etc, are required to report suspected abuse but clergy and attorneys are not.

    What kind of sick people enact laws that protect pedophiles from being exposed?

    November 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Rebecca


      November 10, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • PooCorn


      November 10, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • hmmm

      Perhaps what is really sick is that we have to enact a law to force people to report abuse in the first place.

      Also, I don't necessarily see the legislature expemting people in hopes of protecting pedophiles but if that how you want to twist it ...

      November 10, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  13. Veronica

    I think its funny how everyone keeps talking about joe Pa... how about we talk about who really did the crime? And honestly if Joe would of went to the police and they found nothing, he would of gotten in trouble for false information and then people would of still frowned upon him.. Has anyone realized the Gov was the one that started the investigation as well as there were parents that knew about it and never reported it? People want to sit there and claim morals, how about mcquery coaching saturday? So he witnessed it and gets to stay eventhough he shoul of been the one telling..

    November 10, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • hmmm

      Paterno is the big name in the story to bring sensationalism. If he wasn't the big name, his name wouldn't be in the headline even though the part he played in the events was little and legal. He has been focussed based on his supposed moral obligations vs. the actual crime and perpetrators. I haven't seen the name of the grad assistant in any of the news stories I've read on CNN. (It could be there and I missed it; but it is not mentioned as much a Paterno's.

      The same goes for drawing the parrallels that "abound" in the Penn State case and that of the Catholic church. Two very general parrallels. Perhaps we need to start investigation of all male dominated-hierarchies that are also revered by millions. But once again the headline gets viewers despite the logic involved.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Craig

      Veronica, there are many of us that aren't on the Penn State Joe Pa Cool-aid that read your post and shake our heads. I don't care who the "President" of Penn State was, Joe Pa ran that place. As the face of the University and it's most influential faculty member, it was his responsibility to immediately go to the police with this information. He ran no personal risk in making them aware of the allegations made by the grad assistant. If it turned out to be false, the grad assistant would have been culpable but what would be the motivation of the grad assistant to make up something that outrageous? Every time Joe saw Sandusky on campus after the incident he should have been thinking, "What is this guy still doing here? I need to call the police and find out what the hold up is." Joe's fortunate that he's not been charged with criminal negligence. All the honor talk at that place is a bunch of bull.

      November 10, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  14. Beadles

    Let's not forget that children were brutalized at the hands of a predator – a predator who could have been stopped had Paterno, Spanier, et al., done more than pass the buck. But, then again, what's a child or two compared to the reputation of a university and a winning football season?

    November 10, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Rebecca

      amazing, hunh?

      November 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • stacell72

      Couldn't have said it better myself!

      November 10, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Lester Gester

      Penn State and other colleges should get back to the basics – EDUCATION and forget about f****** sports!
      Colleges and universities are meant to be centres of learning and the betterment of societies in general.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Par for the course

      And to top it off, another commentor here posted a link to a heartfelt article from a Penn State student student about why the riot was wrong. If you read the comments though there are still Penn State students demonstrating utter and complete selfishness. In fact, they still feel JoePa was wronged and refuse to recognize that had he done the right thing and gone to police, some of those children would never have been victimized in the first place. It's disgusting.

      No matter what the few voices of logic from Penn State are saying at this point, the majority opinion coming from Penn State students is that neither JoePa nor the rioters did anything wrong. Apparently an education at Penn State does not buy you common sense OR critical thinking skills. I for one will be doing like one commentor there said and moving all applications from Penn State alumni to the very bottom of the list.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  15. dixiejon

    millions spent on jock worship for a few genetic pool winners with money that could educate thousands

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

      Amen brother!

      November 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  16. kimber barron

    they should put them all in jail until they go to trial that would give them some thinking time about what they should have done!! Let them stay there until they ROTT!!!!

    November 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  17. PooCorn

    Religion sucks harder than a collapsed star. Especially christianity and muslimism.

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

      nice analogy

      November 10, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • Martin


      November 10, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • montyross

      just because you cant toe the line dont hate those that do......

      November 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • PooCorn

      Toe the line or tow the line? I'm not sure if you know what you mean.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • GodPot

      Religion sucks harder than a starving p o r n star...

      November 10, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • montyross

      where do our morals come from? God of course and if you choose not obey them dont hate those that do. If the millions of Christians did not do what was right the earth would be a far worse place to be.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • PooCorn

      Morals existed long before humans invented thousands of imaginary gods.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • GodPot

      "just because you cant toe the line dont hate those that do......"

      Toe – Any of the five digits at the end of the human foot – Merriam-Webster

      Line – A formation in which elements, such as troops, tanks, or ships, are arranged abreast of one another. In Football The linemen considered as a group. – The Free Dictionary

      What exactly are you wanting us to do again? Because that sounds a bit gross when put in college football terms...

      November 10, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  18. HMMMM

    Can't believe how anyone being truly honest with themselves can't see the comparisons. It's not an attack it's the reality. You have to be HONEST and you can't defend such disgusting behavior no matter WHO does it. In fact it's more disgusting if someone claims to represent God and then molests or child, protects those who do, or contines to support the organization which hides this type of behavior. At least Penn State is taking action to remove those responsible. A honest question every Catholic needs to ask themselves how do you think Jesus feels about how the clergy of the Catholic church handled there situation? Look at Matthew 23:27, 28 and how Jesus felt about those religous leaders you can get a very clear answer. Matthew 7:21-23 shows he expected this type of conduct to occur among those who claim to be Christian. But actions and conduct would separate true from false. Scriptures clearly show Jesus doesn't care about what a person professes to be. He care about their actions and whether or not they reflect obedience to God's Word. Romans 1:32 shows supporting or defending those who do such disgusting actions as child molestation will face the consequences mentioned there. Didn't quote any of the scriptures because you need to see it for yourself. Scriptures are very clear.

    November 10, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  19. Remember who's at fault...

    Perhaps if the media would report the WHOLE story, rather than bits and pieces, people could be rightly informed. The fact that you are comparing this to the Catholic Church scandal is an outrage. Joe Paterno is becoming a victim, and he shouldn't be. He LEGALLY did what was asked of him. Why is he out of a job, yet one of the men who WITNESSED the crime still going to be on the sidelines on Saturday? The attention is being focused on the wrong people. How about all of the officials who covered the story up and kept it hush-hush? Are they being publicly condemned?

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

      Paterno may in fact be a catholic priest.

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

      Paterno has the name recognition ergo he gets more attention.

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

      With responsibility comes accountability in the case of Paterno. This is called Hobson's Choice and every ethics student has read and appreciated same.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Perplexed1

      Good thing there are laws so no one has to worry about those pesky morals, eh?

      November 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Par for the course

      Actually you are quite mistaken. Joe Paterno did not fulfill his legal obligations and I truly hope he is prosecuted. You see, you are confusing college policy with law my friend. He followed the college's policy, which enabled the cover up in the first place. I don't care what your business policy is, when you are aware of a crime like this, you are legally obligated to report it to the police, not your supervisor.

      November 10, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • Why does McQueary have a job

      RIGHT - Joe Pa LEGALLY (unless they can prove perjury) did nothing wrong!! Just like parents are only LEGALLY required to feed/water and house their children. However, only feeding, water and housing them doesn't make them good parents!! Those are morals!! Joe Pa did right by the state of Pennsylvania, but that doesn't necessarily mean he did right by Penn St. see the difference???

      November 10, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • hmmm

      I agree with the orginal poster. I don't think there has been enough information here to give a judgment on Joe Paterno based on logic just on emotional hype and moral holier-than-thou speculation. I have only read four or five articles on CNN about this story (and most of it rehashes of older stories).

      What are the timelines of events here? As CNN put it in one of there stories (and I paraphrase since I can't find the story right now) – the most explosive charges in the case was that Joe Paterno was told about the assault by an graduate assistant and reported it to his superiors at the universtiy (or something along those lines). I thought the act being witnessed and not stopped may be more "explosive" or possibly that the witness didn't call police at the time of the crime could be "explosive". Or possibly that the university superiors did not follow through with their legal obligations could be "explosive". Unforunately none of these guys have the same name recognition to tie to the "explosiveness". So less player but bigger name equals "explosive".

      Now as far as timeline of events; is there information available? Can someone direct me if possible? Did the graduate assistant call Paterno right after (during) the late night crime? day(s) later? weeks? It did not sound like Paterno got a lot of detail on what happened. Why is that? How long did Paterno take to inform his superior? Was it a walk down the hall or a telephone call? was it minutes, days, or weeks? After telling his superior, was there indication that the superior was going to take care of it?

      Part of the accusations on Paterno is trying to tie him into a cover-up story for the football/university protection. I'm not sure based on the information that I have seen that Paterno intended to cover-up the allegation. When reported to the higher authority, it seems he put trust in them that they would do their responsibility. If that is the issue - trusting someone with higher authority to do the right thing - then yes he was wrong.

      If he had called the police (another higher authority); should he have called back the next day to talk to next person in command to make sure it was being handled? I mean how can he trust the police officer is going to carry through on the incident? Hypothetically, if the police officer he contacted did not follow through, would we still be talking about his moral obligation of not continuing to follow up? How much involvment are we talking about that he needs to shoulder to fulfill the "moral obligation". Even telling the graduate assistant to report it would have been a good because it would have had to come back to the actual witness, wouldn't it?

      It is easy to point fingers and place blame when you don't care if you have all the facts.

      November 10, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  20. Jerry

    Dear CNN,

    Thanks for spending so much time reporting on all the other BS and avoiding talking about me. Let's keep it all about the real bad-guy in all this – Joe Paterno.


    Jerry Sandusky

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

      Oh, you mean like this article?


      Care to retract your stupid comment?

      November 10, 2011 at 8:00 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.