The Penn State Scandal: Contrasting the School’s Approach With the Catholic Church’s Approach to Its Own Child Sex Abuse Scandal

How does one explain the stark difference between how Penn State has handled its child sex abuse cover-up scandal, and how the Catholic bishops handled theirs?  I am going to take a page out of the book of the Framers of our Constitution, and suggest that the difference is all about organizational structure.

The Similarities Between the Catholic Church and Penn State Scandals

First, let me reiterate what has been said repeatedly by now:  The Penn State cover-up scenario is similar to the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up scenario, which we learned about ten years ago.  In both cases, it was revealed that revered and powerful men knew about child sexual abuse that had been perpetrated by a colleague, yet failed to protect the children at issue.

In both scenarios, the perpetrator(s) were permitted to persist in their sexual assaults on children because their superiors failed to blow the whistle.  They were all guilty of the same callous disregard for the wellbeing of the defenseless children who were being brutally subjugated and violated by one of their own.

But then the stories dramatically diverge.

The Key Differences Between the Response in the Two Child Abuse Scandals

Here was the Catholic Church’s response to the revelations about a cover-up:  The Boston Archdiocese’s Bernard Law, who enabled abuse by the likes of serial perpetrators like John Geoghan and Paul Shanley, was embraced by the Holy See, which invited him to come to Rome to be the head of the second most beautiful church in the city, and to live out his days without ever having to answer for the crimes he made possible.

After Law was saved from the law, it became clear how to move up in the ranks of the bishops in the United States: block legislative reform that would permit lawsuits against the church to go forward.  Archbishop Timothy Dolan moved from Milwaukee to New York and Archbishop Charles Chaput was transferred from Denver to Philadelphia after each defeated the victims in their relevant state legislatures.  Each has since enthusiastically embraced his role as lobbyist against victims in his new state.

Neither has stepped up for kids.

In contrast, what was Penn State’s response to the publicity about its cover-up?  In a matter of days, the Board of Trustees fired the powerful men who had failed children: Coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier.  These men were not wrapped in the protections of power.  Rather, they were held publicly and painfully accountable.  Their vaunted positions afforded them no comfort for their failures.  Quite the contrary.

The Reason for the Difference Between the Responses

An important reason for the difference between the Catholic Church’s response and Penn State’s is this:  The Roman Catholic hierarchy is a monarchy, pure and simple.  The lower rungs of the ladder are to look up to the higher, and the higher may offer a ring to kiss or a blessing, but they are not required—as part of the organizational arrangement—to account for their decisions.

Whether it is infallibility, or divine guidance, the clergy and hierarchy have the power in the institution to demand, as opposed to the obligation to earn, parishioners’ respect.  They can meet in secret and announce new edicts, but believers cannot hold them accountable.  That would require an organizational revolution.

The end result is that change is glacial, and the vulnerable must suffer longer.

Penn State, though, is a public institution that is politically accountable to the people of Pennsylvania, who fund it through their taxes.  Thus, when the Penn State leadership’s reckless disregard of children’s safety was unveiled to the public, there was nowhere for the leadership to turn to escape public scrutiny.  No Rome to run to, and no First Amendment to hide behind.

In that scenario, who loses?  Those at the very top.  Paterno did not have a legal obligation to do more than the bare minimum, but he had to explain his behavior to the public that hired him.  And when his behavior proved indefensible, he was forced off the stage.  Same for Spanier.

Sunshine is a disinfectant in these cases, and it is necessary if we are going to be able to see into the eyes of the distressed children standing behind these backslapping men.

The Framers of the Constitution consciously constructed a governing system that would deter those with power from abusing it.  They sought, first, accountability, and they built it in.  We just saw in Pennsylvania how it is supposed to work.

Penn State’s Scandal Is Hardly Isolated:  How America Still Needs to Crack Down on Child Sex Abuse

The Penn State scandal is just the latest reminder that there are children suffering every day, and we are not doing enough to protect and help them.  They are being sexually abused by parents, aunts and uncles, coaches, and, yes, by their religious leaders.  Why?  Because we have established a legal system that fails to identify the perpetrators.  We let legal claims expire, which is ideal for child predators.  And we have arcane and inadequate reporting statutes that have all sorts of loopholes, like the one that kept Paterno from being charged criminally in the Penn State scandal.

This is a new era.  Now, ten years after the Catholic hierarchy’s cover-up was disclosed, people don’t doubt that those in power will recklessly put children at risk of sex abuse.  And that realization—ugly, but accurate—is itself an improvement for kids.

But much hard work remains to be done. We need, for example, to change the law so that scandals like the Catholic Church’s and Penn State’s are unlikely to happen again.

What particular changes should be made? First, as I’ve discussed in my book Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children and in my columns, we must create a “window” that lets the claims of victims with expired statutes of limitations go forward.  Organizations like FACSA (Foundation to Abolish Childhood Sexual Abuse) are hard at work on that one.

Second, each state should mandate child-sex-abuse reporting for all adults, and create penalties that deter secrecy—such as meaningful fines and substantial jail time, particularly if someone repeatedly fails to report sexual abuse.  If clergy and parents were required to report sex abuse however they learned of it, imagine how many kids might have been protected.  It is a simple fact that a $250 fine deters virtually no one—but a fine of $10,000 and jail time surely would.

Finally, we must take off the blinders.  Kids are being abused all around us.  If your daughter or son, your student, or your kid’s friend, does not want to spend time with a particular adult, but won’t initially say why—ask them, and listen to the answer.  Carefully.  And then, if you suspect abuse, report the problem to the police.

And if you see something that is not right, in any way, pay attention.  And then report the problem to the police.

Had Joe Paterno done so, think how different the world would be today.  Imagine the grand jury report with a section stating that Paterno—despite no legal obligation—had called the police on his long-time coach to protect a boy he did not know.


Showing 4 comments

  • Healingsexualabuse
    commented 2011-11-14 12:16:30 -0600

    something to consider….

    District Justice Judge Leslie Dutchot was a volunteer for Sandusky’s charity, “Second Mile” in 2008 and 2009. She also contributed financially to Second Mile. Is this not clearly a conflict of interest? Just like Joe Paterno, she broke no law but you must question why she did not publicly disclose this fact and remove herself on the ground of conflict of interest. Getting to the truth in Pennsylvania is going to take the public demanding Federal government involvement in assisting current state attorney general, Linda Kelly.

    To get to the source where did the Judge go to grade school and high school? Is the judge Catholic? Where did Sandusky go to grade school and high school? most victimizers have been victimized.. is Sandusky Catholic? Who abused Sandusky? Getting to the source of that implicates the source …. It is possible Sandusky has no Catholic ties, but for this power abuse to take place it sure looks like what SNAP goes against and has to fight outside the Catholic church and in it…. this smells and has the Roman Catholic Church written all over it behind the scenes.. Am i barking up the wrong tree?

    Member of SNAP,

    Healing Sexual Abuse
  • Jm Quinn
    commented 2011-11-12 20:42:44 -0600
    I completely agree on reporting laws. I looked into the law in my state of Wisconsin and only licensed people – teachers, doctors, nurses – need to report known child sex abuse. That leaves the churches off the hook.

    The Lutheran minister who performed my wedding and baptized my older son, was discovered to be a pedophile many years later. He went to prison. He was married with four children, two adopted. Trust no one.
  • Paul Coneff
    commented 2011-11-12 12:17:00 -0600
    I couldn’t agree more.

    As a pastor, I’ve seen the same kind of cover up in Protestant churches.

    I was directly involved in one situation…despite notarized statements by girls, (statements the abuser agreed to), the church leader continued allowing the person to be involved in children’s ministries….with the leader seeking to protect the abuser for his own political reasons, even if that meant going against what the attorney told him to do. And I was scapegoated because I would continue reporting to the attorney continued involvement in children’s ministries.

    (When I talked with police, the statute of limitations had passed). So I learned the hard way how important it is for some within the church system to protect positions and pocket books..and how they become ‘molester protectors.’.

    In my discipleship ministry, Straight 2 the Heart, (, we offer “prayer and ministry of the Word,” (Acts 6:4), to those who have been abused. We see a lot of healing take place time and again, as we share why Jesus can heal us and set us free not just from our sins, but from the sins against us…

    We share how Jesus fulfilled prophecy as He was abused so badly you couldn’t even recognized Him as a human being, (Isaiah 52:14), as He was:
    1. Stripped naked in public
    2. Physically violated in public by a group of abusive men (religious leaders)
    3. Shamed and humiliated by this same group of religious leaders
    4. Verbally and mentally abused by this same group of religious leaders
    5. Abusing the power and authority they had over him, (along with the
    Roman civil leaders as well)

    Because Jesus chose to embrace all our suffering, in EVERY way, (Luke 9:22; Hebrews 2:10, 14-18), He took all our abuse to death on the cross as well…

    And He rose again, “with healing in HIS wings,” (Malachi 4:2).

    As we pray with men and women who have experienced the horrors of physical and sexual abuse, we consistently see deep healing and freedom take place. Jesus “suffered in His soul,” (Isaiah 53:11), the deepest part of His being, so He could take the worst satan can do to someone, in the name of religion no less, and heal our souls, replacing the shame, self-hatred, self-rejection etc. with:

    While I’m working on a book, with testimonies, I wish the abuse would never happen…. I believe the perpetrators need to be held accountable by the law.

    And I’m thankful I can offer abuse victims all the healing, freedom and victory that Jesus gained for them, as their “Suffering Messiah.” Paul Coneff, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
  • Marci A. Hamilton
    published this page in News Story of the Day 2011-11-11 12:29:00 -0600

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