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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.

Marci A. HamiltonMarci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. She also runs two active websites covering her areas of expertise, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, www.RFRAperils.com, and statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, www.sol-reform.com. Professor Hamilton blogs at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights. Her email address is hamilton02@aol.com.
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  • Kimberly

    Tomorrow I will unveil a 2 year project in the making at the United States Sports Academy on how to prevent Child Athlete Abuse Syndrome.

    Last April I presented this progran to the top 100 risk managers of the Catholic church. I told them to their face that child abuse in sports was so much like what they had done.

    My daughter was emotionally and physically abused by her coach in 2003.  Since then I have discovered it is an epidemic, not just the sexual abuse but emotional and physical as

  • Kimberly

    Tomorrow I will unveil a 2 year project in the making at the United States Sports Academy on how to prevent Child Athlete Abuse Syndrome.

    Last April I presented this progran to the top 100 risk managers of the Catholic church. I told them to their face that child abuse in sports was so much like what they had done.

    My daughter was emotionally and physically abused by her coach in 2003.  Since then I have discovered it is an epidemic, not just the sexual abuse but emotional and physical as

  • Greg Pulles

    I know two of these men and your remarks are unwarranted as to them. The Church had no business placing pedophiles back into parishes.  Though none of the Catholic bashers will admit it, the prevailing attitude of the left in the 60’s and on was that pedophiles could be rehabilitated-they can’t.  The Church was wrong. But two of the men you castigate are good men and were not guilty of putting bad priests back in their parishes.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rewinn Randall E. Winn

      You can’t honestly blame this on “the left”. If Cardinal Law is a liberal, then Genghis Khan was Jimmy Carter.

  • Greg Pulles

    I know two of these men and your remarks are unwarranted as to them. The Church had no business placing pedophiles back into parishes.  Though none of the Catholic bashers will admit it, the prevailing attitude of the left in the 60’s and on was that pedophiles could be rehabilitated-they can’t.  The Church was wrong. But two of the men you castigate are good men and were not guilty of putting bad priests back in their parishes.

  • Anonymous

    Marci Hamilton has once again shown us in clear and uncertain terms what has happened, why it was allowed to occur, and what must be done to change the current situation to improve protection, reporting and legal access for our children and their families when sexual abuse and/or predation devastates their lives.

    Why, then, has Rep. Ron Marsico, Chairman of the PA House Judiciary Committee, who has failed to schedule hearings for HB 832 and 878 which were proposed early this year by Reps. Bishop and McGeehan of Philadelphia, finally responded to PA constituents just this week via e-mail and informed them that he OPPOSES the changes that are offered in HB 832 and 878?

    Why is Rep. Marsico, a father and grandfather, OPPOSING changes that would eliminate the statute of limitations both criminally and civilly and OPPOSING a limited “window” of time during which victims would be allowed to sue civilly regardless of when the alleged offense was committed?

    Even though Rep. Marsico OPPOSES such legislation, when will he schedule these important proposals, HB 832 and 878, for hearings in front of the PA House Judiciary Committee to allow other elected representatives to voice their opinion and allow the public to comment on these fine proposals offered by Reps. Bishop and McGeehan?  Because he now OPPOSES these bills, will he use his power as Chairman to block the hearings on these matters?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t  the “abuse of power” one of the key factors involved in sexual abuse and also one of the administrative and organizational factors that has allowed these horrors to be covered-up and remain unresolved.  Rep. Marsico, when will you listen to the citizens of the Commonwealth?  More importantly, when will you listen to the CHILDREN of the Commonwealth?

  • Anonymous

    Marci Hamilton has once again shown us in clear and uncertain terms what has happened, why it was allowed to occur, and what must be done to change the current situation to improve protection, reporting and legal access for our children and their families when sexual abuse and/or predation devastates their lives.

    Why, then, has Rep. Ron Marsico, Chairman of the PA House Judiciary Committee, who has failed to schedule hearings for HB 832 and 878 which were proposed early this year by Reps. Bishop and McGeehan of Philadelphia, finally responded to PA constituents just this week via e-mail and informed them that he OPPOSES the changes that are offered in HB 832 and 878?

    Why is Rep. Marsico, a father and grandfather, OPPOSING changes that would eliminate the statute of limitations both criminally and civilly and OPPOSING a limited “window” of time during which victims would be allowed to sue civilly regardless of when the alleged offense was committed?

    Even though Rep. Marsico OPPOSES such legislation, when will he schedule these important proposals, HB 832 and 878, for hearings in front of the PA House Judiciary Committee to allow other elected representatives to voice their opinion and allow the public to comment on these fine proposals offered by Reps. Bishop and McGeehan?  Because he now OPPOSES these bills, will he use his power as Chairman to block the hearings on these matters?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t  the “abuse of power” one of the key factors involved in sexual abuse and also one of the administrative and organizational factors that has allowed these horrors to be covered-up and remain unresolved.  Rep. Marsico, when will you listen to the citizens of the Commonwealth?  More importantly, when will you listen to the CHILDREN of the Commonwealth?

  • Anonymous

    Ms. Hamilton . .

    Thank you for providing us with your concise analysis of the parallels between Penn State Univ.  with that of the Roman Catholic Church’s  Clergy Abuse Scandal and for highlighting the distinguishing factor which differentiates them . . .  namely . . .  ACCOUNTABILITY.
    Thankfully . . the well-fortified construct of Canon Law that has heretofore insulated the so-called “princes of the church”  from prosecution is slowly being dismantled by principled lawyers like yourself and your esteemed colleague, Jeffrey Anderson. who believe that all are equal under the law. 

    Those who have sought to hold the RC
    “church” accountable and who have pressed for true reform vis a
    vis mandatory reporting of sexual abuse allegations of minors by
    clerics and legislative reform regarding the statutes of limitations in these cases,  must go further and examine the root of the problem which
    lies in Canon law. Until Canon law is uprooted, there will be more
    revelations of cover-ups and more criminal abuse of children by
    clergy.

    So long as the self-serving policies of the Roman Catholic Church are in force which have been implemented to insulate the church from “scandal”  and designed to deter any criticism whatsoever by “the
    faithful” of the hierarchy, these crimes will persist.
    So
    long as Roman Catholic clerics operate under the misguided notion
    that they are above the law, it will be business as usual!  At its’
    very heart, this is anti-Christian!

    May God be pleased to grant rulings in pending cases you are pleading that are favorable to the Victims of Roman Catholic clergy abuse
    whose interests you represent and to whom you give a voice.

    In solidarity with the Victims of Roman Catholic clergy abuse & those who advocate for them,

    JuneAnnette

  • http://www.facebook.com/rewinn Randall E. Winn

    This article helpful describes the essential institutional differences that will enable Penn State to recover but, so far at least, have not helped the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately the latter is not structured to accept external criticism and is therefore unlikely to reform effectively.

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