My Take: Why is NCAA taking sex abuse more seriously than Catholic Church?
Crews work to remove the Joe Paterno statue at Pennsylvania State University on Sunday.
July 24th, 2012
11:04 AM ET

My Take: Why is NCAA taking sex abuse more seriously than Catholic Church?

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) - As a resident of the most Catholic state in the nation (Massachusetts), I have watched for more than a decade as the Roman Catholic Church responded to charges of priestly pedophilia with a troubling combination of procrastination and obfuscation.

Far too often, Catholic priests, bishops and cardinals have identified not with abused children but with their “band of brothers,” their fellow priests.

In the case of the sex crimes committed by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, officials at Penn State also looked the other way.

They must be credited, however, with commissioning a no-holds-barred investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, whose report (PDF) concluded that Penn State officials engaged in a cover-up that allowed Sandusky’s sexual assaults on children to continue for years.

They should also be applauded for removing a statue of head coach Joe Paterno, who for far too long was revered as a demigod at Penn State.

On Monday, however, the NCAA took the higher road. In a shocking departure from the foot-dragging in Rome, it sided quickly and definitively with the victims.

In a harsh ruling, the NCAA banned the Penn State football team from postseason games for four years and took away 20 football scholarships per year for the same period. It also ruled that the university will not receive its portion of conference bowl revenues for those four years. And it fined the school $60 million.

Equally significantly, it turned all of Penn State's football wins from 1998 forward into losses, stripping Paterno of his claim to fame as the winningest football coach in NCAA history.

These penalties did not include the so-called “death penalty,” which would have shut down the football program for a year or more. But, in truth, this penalty is worse.

The NCAA acted boldly to send a message to collegiate athletic programs elsewhere in the United States that neither the sex crimes of Sandusky nor the “see no evil, hear no evil” response of Paterno and other Penn State officials will be tolerated.

Still, I wonder whether the message will reverberate even further, perhaps even to the hallowed halls of the Vatican.

I was not raised a Catholic, but in my youth I admired the Roman Catholic Church for taking clear stands on the major moral issues of our time - on abortion and war and poverty and capital punishment. I have watched with both sadness and horror as this venerable institution has squandered the moral capital it accrued over centuries in a misguided and un-Christian attempt to wish away a problem that was staring it in its face for decades.

Although the Vatican has undertaken nothing like the independent Freeh report to unearth how its institution lost its way, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did commission an outside report delivered in May by researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It also weighed a parallel report by lay Catholics of the National Review Board in June.

Neither of these documents read anything like the hard-hitting Freeh report, however, and the Catholic Church did not respond to its crisis with either the speed or the firmness of the NCAA.

In the Gospel of Luke, at the end of the Good Samaritan story, Jesus tells his followers to “go and do likewise.”

That is the NCAA's message to the Vatican.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Opinion • Pennsylvania • Sex abuse • Sports • United States • Vatican

soundoff (1,118 Responses)
  1. Mallory

    Reblogged this on the.current and commented:
    Good opinion piece...

    July 24, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  2. citizenmn

    The best thing that could happen for the world is the end of the Catholic church. It's distortion of Christianity and source of misery for millions.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Jesus Christ

      You are 100% correct. The catholic church is the devil in disguise.

      July 24, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • RKM

      The best thing that could happen would be the end of Christianity. It's a distortion of humanity and a source of misery to billions.

      July 24, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
    • Veritas


      July 24, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Mello

      I'm glad you don't make any decisions that will ever bring this terrible wish to fruition.

      July 25, 2012 at 3:22 am |
  3. Luke Hopkins

    A couple of things. I take it that Prothero's central point, that the Roman Catholic Church badly needs to tell the full truth about pedophilia among its priests and begin the painful work of repentance and change, is beyond serious dispute. However, I do not think the NCAA and the Freeh Group provide very good examples for it to follow–both seem irredeemably tied to public opinion and rushed, sensationalist conclusions. A lot of evidence in the case–some of which implicates agencies and individuals beyond and above Penn State– seems to have been been glossed over in favor of making big headlines. What the Church needs is not such media-mongering and grand gestures and sloppy investigations, but to return radically to its Gospel roots–which demand an uncompromising commitment to truth, justice, and transformed relationships. Such a process won't be easy or quick, but nothing less will do. And because the NCAA and Freeh couldn't be bothered to do work like that, I suspect that the Sandusky story, sadly, is far from over.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
  4. tab

    Catholic church has ignored this problem for years and I have no respect for those in the Vatican who turned their heads and looked the other way. Maybe if priests could marry they wouldn't have pedophiles behind the alter!!!!!

    July 24, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • James

      Agreed and what's sad. The media picks and chooses who to go after based on one report they put the pressure on. Fair and consistent, that's all I'm looking for.

      July 24, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • tededfred

      Agreed. Sandusky should have got married and this all would have been prevented. Wait...

      July 24, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • James

      I don't care if the Catholic Church wants to live in the stone age and not allow a Priest to marry or a woman be a priest. They cannot handle the responsibility they have now and why there has been over 6000 Priest accused since the 50's costing the parishioners billions of dollars. Turn a blind eye that's what the church does best, yet no one gets punished.

      July 24, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Mello

      Over 330 million dollars paid to victims and three articles below this one is about a Priest getting 3-7 years in prison. We do live in a country where you are innocent until proven guilty right? Should I just accuse you of being a child molester and it be touted as fact? There's a justice system and you need to let it play out.

      July 25, 2012 at 3:26 am |
  5. jmho43

    Oh boo hoo for the poor players. That's life. Whenever a program is penalized the players get penalized. It's collateral damage, but nothing like what the little boys went through. So the college boys won't, what, get to play a bowl game? Cry me a river. Penn State should have gotten a death penalty, but at least taking away Joe Pa's victories was indeed something.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  6. e

    Oh please. NCAA are a just a grandstanding bunch of blowhards. If it's easy and black and white like this, they are surely ready to lower the boom and make a show of it...even though they have no rules or involvement relating to this. Meanwhile dozens of their rules (recruiting, payments, grades) are flouted throughout the year, and they wave weakly at it. So as not to damage anyones reputation too bad. But this was an easy target for them, and suddenly they are the morality police. Don't disagree that PSU desreves some punishment, but the NCAA grandstanding is just ridiculous.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  7. lindaluttrell

    Then I recommend the NCAA forget football and start policing churches...

    July 24, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • Clint

      Someone should......

      July 24, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  8. James

    If punishment against Penn State let's be fair and consistent, let's put sanctions against The Catholic Church then. What's fair is fair. Francis Bernard Law, covered up 100's of cases of child abuse, was forced to resign, sent to Europe, never faced charges and was given a promotion by Pope John Paul, how is he any better then Joe Paterno.......Rather worse. If we crucify Penn State it's time holding all organizations accountable and in crimes such as these no one organization is better. Here is some facts and was in a national paper: Within days of Jerry Sandusky's conviction, a Philadelphia jury convicted the first U.S. Catholic church official, Monsignor William Lynn, for endangering children by failing to protect them from known abusers.

    That trial brought back into the headlines the horrifying statistics of a decade of such failures.

    More than 6,100 accused priests since 1950.

    More than 16,000 victims - that we know of, as there is no national database.

    And $2.5 billion in settlements and therapy bills for victims, attorneys fees and costs to care for priests pulled out of ministry from 2004 to 2011.

    Jerry Sandusky's victims are fewer in number, for a shorter period. But SNAP's larger point seems to be that society ignores abuse - particularly if committed by someone trusted and important like a priest or a coach - at the peril of its youth. Yet we crucify Penn State and where are the sanctions on the church? That's the question we all need to ask ourselves.

    This is on such a more grand scale then Penn State yet we turn a blind eye because it involves the church and that is not right. Yet so many Christians shout out that this is the right decision against PSU and I will not support that organization yet those same people do each Sunday and weather they want to believe it or not a portion of that 2.5 billion is coming out what they put into collection plates each and every week, that is hypocrisy at its finest.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • TJ

      "And $2.5 billion in settlements and therapy bills for victims, attorneys fees and costs to care for priests pulled out of ministry from 2004 to 2011."

      For the 77.7 million catholics in the U.S., that works out to paltry $32 per person. Perhaps if it cost each parishioner thousands of dollars for the pain and suffering of those children, the Catholic Church would be forced to truly clean up its act, or better yet, shutter its doors.

      July 24, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • Mello

      The hypocrisy is when you point and shout at less than 1% of the problem and ignore the other 99+% that roam your schools, athletics, and neighborhoods. 2.5 billion is a lot of money, but not all of that is spent on care of priests. 6,000 priests can be accused but how many are truly guilty? Over 90% of abuse cases against priests are proven false before they ever hit the courts. But how many of you ask for schools to be shut down? For athletics to be removed from society? The answer is none of you. You find a target for your anger and say it's all their fault. You group the church as whole and spout the entire religion is evil. I love being Catholic and I love my church. I hate the mistakes in our history and the criminals that remain in the church. I hope they pay for it in jail with the rest of their evil kind. Your anger is misguided and should be pointed elsewhere towards the problem as a whole.

      July 25, 2012 at 3:35 am |
  9. William

    What Sandusky did was appalling, and the cover up was terrible. But, the NCAA had no business in this. This is a civil matter before the courts. The NCAA should stick to ruling on player misconduct, which is not present in this case. To punish innocent student athletes, and have their wins vacated from 12 seasons, is overkill by the NCAA.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  10. Micook

    Somehow, molesting children, gave Penn State an unfair advantage on the Football Field?! I agree with about half of the punishments!

    July 24, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  11. Micook

    What?! Learn how to punish innocent Penn State Athletes past and present, instead of those who committed the crimes and covered them up?!

    July 24, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • Clint

      Well, you have to admit...it's hard to punish a dead guy.....

      July 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  12. Smeagel4T

    Just because the Church doesn't want it's priests to marry doesn't mean they should stand in the way of other gay people marrying.

    July 24, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  13. Smeagel4T

    Can we take away a year's worth of income from the Church? Perhaps we can exclude them from being able to be declared as a religion for a few years.

    July 24, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  14. Chris

    This is quite possibly the worst article ever posted on CNN.

    July 24, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • wellywellup

      are you a priest?

      July 24, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • BT

      i take it you like little boys...

      July 24, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  15. bethaa

    Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you Mr. Stephen Prothero! I have been waiting for someone to say exactly what you said in your article. All those priests should all go to jail, and I'm sure if they started 'rounding them up' there would be very little of them left to preach on Sunday.

    July 24, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  16. Michael

    A word is a sin ,-–is a sin no matter who does it and the shame of it should come to light not matter his are her name, shine the light on all who sin my lord.!

    July 24, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  17. Jim

    Wow. Eliminate God and promote gay as normal. CNN's agenda could not be more obvious from all of the articles they choose to print.

    July 24, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • BobG

      I'm very surprised CNN didn't delete your post like they usually do. Don't bother with these fascist liberals. If you don't agree with them, they'll either delete you or yell at you or become vulgar. Anyways, just look at CNN's ratings -worse and worse. You don't need to kill someone that's committing suicide.

      July 24, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • wellywellup

      so you think it is okay for priests to abuse children? nice.

      July 24, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • BobG

      Absolutely not. I'm not religious but what I DO HAVE A PROBLEM WITH is CNN fomenting hate. While there was/is a definite problem with abuse, there are MANY MANY very good Catholics. They don't need to be hated!

      July 24, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Gotcha!

      BobG = nottolate

      July 24, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Clint

      I didn't read anything in the article about hating all catholics. Some people read waaaaay to far into things.

      July 24, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • BobG

      Just look at the many of the comments. I said "fomenting" hatred ,,,,

      July 24, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  18. stanton


    July 24, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • Chocolate covered bacon

      True, but wrong article. The muppets are two doors down.

      July 24, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  19. stanton


    July 24, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • RM

      damn opinion staton. i don't know what's your country of origin. you need to remember that nobody owns america except the first inhabitants, the native indians. you're so narrow minded. may be you hate the catholic church because you're are gay, an abortionist or worse may be a communist. you have to know if you have no idea that it is only the catholic church that don't insist on a tenth percent collection in its sunday services. the Church is blessed because it's founded and guided by Christ. this country will be turning hispanic whether you like it or not because hispanics know the value of life more than the rest of us why because they are mostly catholics.

      July 24, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  20. nc1965

    Just like the Catholic church, Republicans generally dislike women and only want them for breeding.

    Evidence being, a lot are caught in marriages pretending to be straight.

    July 24, 2012 at 9:03 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.