What the Catholic Church Can Teach Us About the Penn State Scandal

A conversation with Jason Berry, an investigative reporter who's written extensively about child molestation charges against the church

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Reuters

Alleged sexual abuse of young boys. An apparent institutional cover-up. Public shock and outrage. A media firestorm.

The ongoing Penn State scandal?

Try the Catholic Church.

With former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky charged with sexually abusing children—and school officials including iconic former football coach Joe Paterno dismissed for purportedly failing to report Sandusky's alleged crimes to law enforcement—many observers have compared the situation to a series of similar cases that have rocked the Vatican.

The Atlantic recently spoke to investigative reporter Jason Berry, author of Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II and Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church about the parallels between the two stories.


You've been investigating sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church for decades. Do you see any similarities to the Penn State story?

The parallels are striking. Allegedly, Paterno did what most of the Catholic bishops have done. He referred the problem to someone else, and then put it in cotton. Out of sight, out of mind. The prolonged, aching story of the Catholic Church crisis is in part a failure to report to law enforcement, and instead to give guys [like Sandusky] a free ride.

What differences do you see between the two situations?

The one thing that struck me is that the [Penn State] board of trustees acted swiftly and appropriately, in a way that the church rarely has done. They fired Paterno. They fired the university president. They are trying to rectify the damage.

Compare that to what the church is doing in Philadelphia. They are preparing the legal defense for three priests [accused of sexual abuse] and the monsignor who covered it up. There's no question of punishing previous cardinals who knew about it. Typically in these cases, the bishops stay in their positions. The Vatican doesn't comment. It stands behind them, hires blue-chip lawyers, and has them utter their apologies.

This comes from a different approach to governing. The church is monarchical, while the school is in some way grounded in the principles of law and democracy.

How does something like this happen, particularly within a college football program that prided itself on its moral character and at an educational institution with a presumed mission is to serve and protect young people?

Think about this: the church is full of men who have been highly educated in seminaries when it comes to moral ethics, yet when it comes to a fundamental decision about right and wrong they locked themselves behind the doors of a powerful institution instead of coming to terms with a bigger moral truth.

Now, why did [people at Penn State] seemingly not want to see the power of justice brought to bear on behalf of that 10-year-old boy [who allegedly was raped by Sandusky in a football facility shower]? Part of it, I'm assuming, is because they did not want Sandusky to be punished. Part of it was not wanting to bring scandal on Penn State.

In both the Penn State and the Catholic Church scandals, the people in charge could have done more to prevent the alleged abuse. They didn't. Why?

People assume children will be silent. You know? And as horrific as that image is of a coach sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in a shower, it is one of those ugly truths that people do not like to confront. The idea that something like that needs to be made public, or become part of a police report, it unsettles people. It just jars them. I've read hundreds of depositions in cases involving the church and priests. It's amazing how many times the syntax and language becomes tortured and gnarled when bishops and monsignors in positions of authority try to explain why they didn't do anything.

I think we've really lost in this country—and maybe in many countries—a certain value of leadership. The idea that power can be wielded for the common good is kind of up for grabs these days, because there are so many competing commercial interests on governance as we know it.

Following the alleged shower rape in 2002, Penn State officials banned Sandusky from bringing young boys onto the school's main campus—but then allowed Sandusky to continue to hold his summer youth camps on a satellite campus. Does that sort of weak half-measure sound familiar?

That is an absolute parallel. What you find in so many church cases—thankfully, it doesn't happen nearly as much today as it once did—is that the pattern was for the cases to not be reported to law enforcement. The parents of the victims would go to the pastor or the Bishop. They would be told, "We'll move this guy. He won't be around children again." They would remove him. He would reoffend. He would be sent to a treatment facility, and then be put back in. Sometimes, he would be "monitored." But it's hard to monitor a guy on his day off, follow him to every playground.

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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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