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.