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. BobOso

    What Penn State and the Catholic Church have in common is that they are both led by men whose word is absolute. Even if someone did follow the chain of command, Paterno or the Pope has the absolute final word. What is needed is an outside way to report ethical violations, anonymously if needed. This is true for any organization of size, be it a business, church or school. The outside agency (Ethics Hotline) should have full authority and power to investigate and report to the proper authorities. This is the best way to help stop the practice of issues being reported, only to reach a dead end. If such a practice were in place, neither the Catholic Church or Penn State would be in the mess they are in now.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  2. foffe1

    The Catholic church leadership can't be to severe in its punishments of molesters in the event they get caught themselves.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  3. laserw

    First, the Freeh Report is bogus – this is the same idiot who ran the FBI to the build up of Sept 11th – he was incompetent then and has no authority, credibility, or expertise to administer any investigation or report. The report is filled with very specious connections and is so riddled with holes that no one with any intelligence would take it seriously. The NCAA only acted to cover its butt – it used the Freeh report as cover to avoid itself being sued for hiding and covering up child molestation at Penn State. You have a white wash going on – piling on a dead man, insulting him when the facts aren't even yet uncovered, and there is still no evidence that Paterno even failed to act. The evidence we do have is that he followed the chain of command and reported the actions. We can also look to that story shifter that said he saw something in the shower – if he really did see what he said he saw, then why did he basically do nothing? At best he did exactly like Paterno did and reported it to his superior. At worst he made the whole thing up. The problem is that we still have no idea precisely how things worked at Penn State – but we do have a rush to judgment to punish a dead man, his legacy, and for the NCAA to take a gonad-free approach to resolution. Sadly, the NCAA's actions will now stagnate any further investigation and those truly responsible for the coverup will go unpunished.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • independentlyowned

      You're either a Penn State graduate or a pedophile. Only possible explanations for such blind, ignorant allegiance.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • DB

      Oh my God ENOUGH ALREADY with questioning the validity of the Freeh report. PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY ACCEPTS THE RESULTS OF THE INVESTIGATION, despite how bad it made them look. Penn State asked the NCAA to skip their own usual investigation and just use the Freeh report. Penn State didn't try to negotiate a lesser punishment.

      If we were to compare this to a criminal case, Penn State has pleaded guilty to the indictment, and waived its right to address the court at a sentencing hearing. PENN STATE HAS ADMITTED FAULT AND ACCEPTED THEIR PUNISHMENT. It's time for you to GROW UP and do the same.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  4. vino111

    The NCAA is missing the point. The NCAA took action against an entire community of people: students, alumni, small business owners. They also did not take action that will affect anyone who was involved. Most important: The sanctions imposed by the NCAA do *not* help the victims. Why wouldn't they keep the program going and require Penn State donate profits to the victims and their families and programs to prevent child abuse from happening?

    July 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Good point. Why punish an entire group of people for the actions of a few? Unless of course they are Catholic.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Easy E

      "Deacon": you punish the whole group because time and time again they refused to cast out the wicked few. Pretty soon, the whole group starts emulating the initial evildoers. That explains the lack of ANY meaningful reform in the church today. You aren't innocent when you're a sick enabler.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • DB

      Since when is "helping the victims" the motivation for punishing the guilty?

      You JUST DON'T GET IT, do you?

      July 24, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  5. The Doug

    I knew I was doing something right when I picked football over church on Sunday.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • cured76

      Good man!

      July 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • PrimeNumber

      Doug, what do you call 70000 people, half of them painted, chanting, and waving their arms? Football fanatics. Nope, Doug. You just changed religions.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  6. New Gawker

    There's a major difference here: Penn state was hiding one child rapist to protect it's reputation, the Church is a haven of pedophiles where child rapist are nurtured and protected.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Easy E

      Worse yet, not only does the Cathloic church protect these dangerous violent felonious criminals (yes, molestation is a violent crime), they've managed to convince a large number of their sheeple followers that this is morally the right thing to do. That is a far, far more egregious evil than anything else, it is proof that this religion had either cast out the their wicked or live condemned as morally bankrupt criminal enablers.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      If you crunch the numbers of pedophile footballs coaches at Penn who are pedophile compared to the numbers of priests who are pedophiles in the Church on a per capita basis you will recognize what an idiot you are.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Easy E

      "Deacon": I'll gladly call myself an idiot if it will get you Catholics motivated to cast out the pedophiles within your ranks. Whatever it takes guy. Pick up that phone, cooperate with the police, and start protecting some kids, call me an idiot all day long if you like, just please take some real action for once.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  7. Nick

    Clearly, this (among many other examples) demonstrates that religion and morality can be mutually exclusive. I hope a day will come when humanity finally grasps that morality is a science to be discovered (based on ideas from schools of thought like objectivism and positive psychology i.e. – a morality that is based on what is actually required for our psychological health and happiness), and not left exclusively to religion.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Easy E

      You are correct, but those weak with faith cannot bear the consequences of taking a serious introspective look. Furthermore, the vast majority of people use their faith as a crutch, or as a way to get rich...soul searching would destroy those safe havens for the slothful and the decadent.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  8. Ken

    Religions are different from football, hence I don't see a correlation between the two cases. As for people's reactions.. this proves that people, by natural and instinct, defend for things that they believe in. I'm not saying that it is bad, it is actually good. People stand up for things of their belief despite the eggs being thrown at them. Penn Staters were accused of being Coach-worshippers and pedophile enabler-supporters. Thus, Penn Staters stood and fought against the accusations. Now CNN thinks that it is Catholics' turn to be scolded. Catholics, who threw eggs in despise of Penn Staters, are now defending for themselves. It's a never ending cycle. I respect those who stand to fight false accusations. It's not a matter of right or wrong, because technically both parties are right in their own beliefs. People just need to be more open minded and at least try to understand where the arguments are coming from. Anyone agree/disagree with me?

    July 24, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  9. Dan

    What a ridiculous article. The NCAA has largely penalized people who had nothing to do with the scandal. Trashing Paterno's legacy is one thing. The school did that on its own. But the NCAA is in fact being completely irresponsible and disingenuous by throwing the current student athletics program under the bus, instead of further addressing the legacy issue.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • cedaly1968

      Totally agree. This article is bunk. If the Catholic Church were to follow the same logic as the NCAA they would use the "death penalty" and shut down parishes or dioceses. The NCAA overstepped there bounds in my opinion but PSU administrators wanted to avoid the "death penalty" Frankly, if they had applied the penalty to PSU and I was there, I would have sued the NCAA for monopoly. They have a 100% monopoly on collegiate athletic sports. That would make the NCAA sh!t their pants.

      As to the earlier comment that the Church provides a haven for and "nurtures and protects" pedophiles – that is offensive and wrong.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Rft

      Dan, I agree completely and I'm a Crimson Tide fan. Stripping the 112 games does nothing to JoePa, but it's a slap in the face to the players who had nothing to do with the scandal. I agree that the school should pay a penalty, and maybe the post-season ban is deserved (although I disagree with it), but all these penalties do is depress an entire student body and cripple their enrollment. Punish those responsible, but don't take it out on the students.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • nolapearl

      The school and those in charge did this to themselves. They went back to 1998 because that's when those in charge, including Coach Paterno, knew and did nothing. And if the fans and students want to blame anyone, those are the people they should blame. The ones who were given a great deal of authority and TRUST and they betrayed that – because they valued money and their football program more than they did the lives of little boys – boys that no one would believe if they told their stories. Sorry, the students didn't deserve this, but the Paterno and the administrators did. And when all is said and done, you'll see how negligent they really were when you see the awards their liability insurance companies will pay out to these young men.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  10. Ben

    Will it also teach public schools in the USA who have ten times the molestation?

    July 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  11. bqm13

    It is clear that the NCAA made this decision based on money, cash, green backs, nothing more. They threatened the "death penalty" to NDSU for the use of a name, Fighting Sioux. However, when it came to the molestation of children, no "death penalty" is warranted. They are in this for the money and thats it. If they would have passed the death penalty Penn State would have no money for their other athletic departments. Again, NDSU is a very small market and thus not as big of a gross money earner as Penn State.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  12. MrStupid

    Now any and all administrators, teachers, former atheletes, alumni, etc. at Penn State are going to share a jail cell next to the priest in Philly who did not report the complaints against the priests to the authorities, right?

    July 24, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • J.W

      Yes as long as they can prove that they knew about it.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  13. Elmar Kremer

    Prothero ignores the main issue: What has the NCAA done to ensure that the abuse of minors does not continue at Penn State, in its football program and its many other athletic programs? Perhaps Prothero has gotten things the wrong way around. Perhaps the NCAA could learn a few things from the Catholic Church in this matter.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • J.W

      How many other NCAA program has been involved in committing child abuse?

      July 24, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • J

      The could have quietly moved Sandusky to another program...

      July 24, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  14. Journey

    The true church of god is Greek Orthodox.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  15. Pat

    You atheists are all really, small and irrelevant. Sort of like CNN's ratings. 😉

    July 24, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • bryanpetty

      This is exactly why atheist look at Christians as hypocrites.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Tom

      Pat, does religion make you feel big and important? Maybe all you really need is a hug.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • TR6

      Are you going to back that up with some evidence or are your words just as impotent as the proclamations of the catholic church?

      July 24, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • mhill1234

      We should be civil and witty with our atheist friends.
      Good works are not only performed by Christians.
      Showing your faith by good works is better than antagonizing them.
      Usually there is a fundamental issue that keeps an atheist from finding grace.
      Unless you can provide an answer, it doesn't help to build walls between them and us.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I like that mhill

      July 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  16. innocent bystander

    So the church should do likewise...Alright lets fines the churches millions prevent conversions for the next 4 years and all blessings, conversions, and salvations in the last ____ years did not happen. All confessed sins are hereby unforgiven.
    That is how we protect children...

    July 24, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Howdy Ho

      Conversions?? If one truly believes in God, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, etc., he or she has already converted. A paid carnival barker in robes rivaling Liberace's wardrobe shaking holy water, oil, &/or incense isn't needed to validate one's faith.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  17. Dan

    The few are really many. Many other people including football players from previous years have known about the abuse, And some of them are very popular today. and said nothing. The NCAA is right with it's punishment. We should not forget that there is a hero in this shameful situation. It took a lot of courage to report the abuse. Yes the whole place needed these sanctions and should rollover to other teams including pros. Football is treated more like a god rather than a kids game.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  18. lisaleev

    I agree whole heartedly with this article. Everyone worries that "this will make us look bad" when if they would do something about it it wouldn't make them look nearly as bad as they do now. Child abuse should be reported immediately, I don't care who you are or how uncomfortable you may be with the subject – REPORT IT. Silence is assent.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  19. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    So Steve P, the religiously uncommitted religion professor from Boston U, wants the Vatican to fine their archdioceses another $60 million/each even though most are either bankrupt or near bankruptcy from paying billions of dollars of legal judgements and settlements?

    And the Vatican should reduce the number of candidates for priesthood for these archdioceses when said dioceses are quickly running out of priests? And also reduce any funding for seminaries?

    And the Vatican should reduce the number of Masses and other functions like centennial celebrations held in these archdioceses to really punish all the parishes for their ghastly deeds?

    "Professor" Steve needs to take up chess as obviously his commentaries are wasting his and our time.

    And to get his required 2000 + words in his commentary, Steve P regurgitated all of the NCAA's penalities. i.e. he gets paid by the word, not for thinking or keeping commentary short or to the point.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Easy E

      So in other words, leave the "poor Catholic Church" alone so they can get back to the business of abusing kids. Sounds like a rational plan to me. Meanwhile the while the various parishes around the world crumble in decay, Vatican City is as glorious as ever, the perfect collection of Ivory Towers.

      Hey dude, denial isn't just a river in North Africa.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Reality

      Leave the poor Catholic Church alone? Hardly!!

      The Apostles' Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
      and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      (references used are available upon request)

      July 25, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  20. Thomas

    Professor Steve Prothero: this editorial is false. Not true. Slamming the Catholic Church regarding the corrective action implemented since 2002 reveals nothing more than the low academic standards you hold for yourself . The Vatican's office on Congregation of the Faith in coordination with the Special Commission formed by the USCCB (US Conference of Catholic Bishops) have issued harsh reports, all of which have been discussed at Sunday Mass. Assuming you don't attend our Church, may explain why you and CNN would let such garbage be written as fact. Perhaps your not a practicing Catholic or research facts from any Catholics that are. Would you write the same about Judaism? Be advised you embarass yourself and Boston University when you write such. And yes I will send a copy of this to BU Board of Trustees.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Easy E

      Oh wow, so the Catholic church commissioned some reports and they read them at Sunday mass? Well, problem solved! Of course, not a single one of the pedophiles that molested tens of thousands of kids in this country has ever been prosecuted, ubt hey, who needs to obey the law of the land when God is obviously asking all of us to understand the point of view of the pedophile, right?
      If this is your view of how a Godly people are supposed to operate, then fella, please stop calling yourself a Christian.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • maria

      EasyE, aka Stephen Prothero?

      July 24, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • ST

      Harsh reports? That's it? Let me know when the Catholic Church is cooperating with the local police to clean out their organization.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Easy E

      Hi Maria! Hey guess what, despite the fact that you refuse to accept reality, everyday people can plainly see the evil done by the leadership of the Catholic church. You have a choice, you can either follow Christ, or you can follow an earthly leadership falsely claiming to represent Him. "By their fruit so shall ye know them...". Check out Matthew Chapter 7 if you ever care to follow the actual Word rather than a dressed-up dude.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • PrimeNumber

      Thank you Thomas. Journalism is portentially the most dishonorable job out there. Journalists like Prothero get to throw stones from a position of safety. They are free to withhold whatever information might challenge their pabulum. Example: the New York Times challenged the diocese of NYC to open all its files for inspection re the pedophile cases. The church responded "Okay. We'll open our files if you open yours." Predictably, the NYT refused. It would be interesting to read minutes from meetings in places such as CNN. We'd find out what information is deliberately ignored.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • maria

      EasyE, reality is reading a line or two of biblical lines won't save the likes of you.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:52 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.