Lessons for the Catholic Church from an Unlikely Source—Penn State

During the past week, the media and the American public could not help but draw comparisons between the recent child sex abuse scandal at Penn State and the endemic sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

But there are major differences that are hard to ignore. At Penn State, the predator and those who covered up the crimes were fired less than a week after a Pennsylvania grand jury outlined the scope and scale of sex crimes and inaction by higher-ups. In fact, the coach was fired for not doing everything in his power to protect the kids.

When another Pennsylvania grand jury exposed a child sex abuse ring in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia earlier this year, Archdiocese officials moved with lead feet. They initially denied the allegations, and even now, after indictments, refuse to address the issue publicly. That’s in keeping with the Church’s overall policy of “cover up and clean up”: In many other dioceses where sex-abuse crimes have been exposed, predators remain employed, and those who enabled and covered up the crimes also keep their jobs. Many even get promotions.

Why the vast difference in the reactions of Penn State and the Vatican? Much of it can be explained by the power structure of the two organizations. In the Catholic Church, the bishops and cardinals answer to no one but the Pope. None of them are ever fired. In contrast, Penn State’s highest-in-command, the President of the University, answers to a board of trustees, the university community, donors and alumni. And as we saw this week, he can indeed be fired.

Penn State is in the midst of a complete overhaul of the leadership of the university and the football program. Every policy and procedure will be reviewed and revamped. All documentation will be public. They are moving their focus from the preservation of the football program to the healing of the victims and protecting the vulnerable. There is exposure of crimes and the public airing of all wrong doing. They are not perfect by any stretch, but they are taking decisive action. Penn State is doing all of this in a week.

In the Catholic Church, the highest in command remain in their positions and keep on with business as usual. Twenty-five years after the scandal first made national headlines, the focus of the church remains the protection of predators and of reputations. Not one church official has encouraged that the bishops who enable and cover up the crimes be prosecuted, and only one of the hundreds of bishops who have done so has been indicted in a court of law (Bishop Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, this October.)

A secular university has done more for victims in a week than the Catholic Church has done in two decades.

While it is painful, there is hope that the violence to children has stopped at Penn State. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Catholic Church.

Photo of Joe Paterno statue from Flickr user Audreyjm529 under Creative Commons 2.0.


Barbara Blaine is founder and president of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Since 1988, Blaine has reached out to help survivors, expose wrongdoers and prevent clergy sex crimes and cover ups. Previously Blaine worked as a volunteer high school teacher in Jamaica and assisted street-children to locate family members, ran a shelter for homeless families in Chicago and then represented abused and neglected children in juvenile court. Blaine holds graduate degrees in Law, Social Work and Theology. Blaine works tirelessly to protect the innocence and safety of children and to help survivors and their loved-ones find healing, information and support. She is married and lives in Chicago.