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

Pat Little / 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.

The real problem is that the church has this view of once a priest, always a priest. The clerical culture closed its ranks around these men, put them, in effect, on a de facto probation. That's changing, slowly.

How does child sex abuse affect its victims?

The damage is serious. Kids grow up with a warped sexual identity. It's very hard for them to develop bonds of trust in relationships. Sexual intimacy is always an issue. Young males have fears of becoming molesters as they get older. Some do. Not all, by any stretch. People often become alcoholics, drug addicts, chain-smokers, obese. It can cause enormous disruptions within families as they grow up. Only years later do parents really being to understand why junior was acting that way.

Penn State students were criticized for rallying on Paterno's front lawn and later rioting after his dismissal. Did those scenes surprise you?

There was a letter to the editor in the New Orleans newspaper today, a woman complaining about the rioting students and how misplaced their values were. But I think for young people in a situation like that, it's hard to get a full grasp of matters when football so permeates the culture of a place.

It's 80 miles from where I live to Baton Rouge, and I can tell you that football is practically a civil religion at LSU. So from outside looking in, it certainly appears as though an entire cultural sensibility [at Penn State] has been dislodged and ended.

How does that dislodging of cultural sensibilities compare to your experiences investigating the Catholic Church?

Let me give you a story. In 1986, I finished the first major investigative series on in a weekly newspaper for this, to be published in the The Times of Acadiana. I had dinner with the editor of the paper. He wanted to write an editorial, telling the bishop he should resign and if he won't, then the Vatican should remove him.

He says, I've never written an editorial like that.

I say, no one has ever written an editorial like that.

He writes it. A retired judge, a very wealthy man in the area, calls up the publisher of the paper and says, you gotta retract this editorial. Why? He says, because you just can't do that, you just can't say that. They start arguing. The next day, the retired judge commenced an advertisers' boycott. The paper lost 20 grand in revenue before wiser heads prevailed and they pulled off the boycott.

Meanwhile, I was called a vulture of yellow journalism by the daily paper in the same town. There was a whole newspaper war over the story. I've seen countersuits filed against abuse victims, really tough ensuing litigation, litigation by ordeal that lasts three and four years. So the idea that a group of people would band together around a football coach or an institution is not surprising. In fact, it almost conforms to type.

The first allegation against Sandusky came in 1998, but local law enforcement officials at the time declined to press charges. Have you seen a similar lack of aggressiveness in church cases?

Oh, all the time. In Chicago, for years, they would not prosecute what cops derisively called "white-collar" crimes—meaning Roman collar crimes. Prosecutors, especially in large cities with a heavy Catholic vote, would much rather hand a priest over to a bishop and say, "will you take care of this?" That way, they don't have to indict a priest and face the wrath of a supposedly monolithic Catholic vote. Fortunately, that too is changing.

Why does the Catholic Church have the attitude of "we'll take care of this" when it comes to sexual abuse?

It's a Roman clerical sensibility, the idea that we are an institution above the law. We have our own set of laws and conform to our own forms of governance. Now, many bishops are changing and realize that you have to report perpetrators. But the church historically has its own legal system. Canon law. Which gives de facto immunity to bishops. No so much the legal code, but the Vatican itself—the Pope historically gives bishops and cardinals immunity when they get in trouble. They might "step down," but they are not stripped of their ecclesiastical status. They're not excommunicated.

This comes from the concept of apostolic succession. What that means is the bishops and cardinals consider themselves to be of a direct spiritual linage from Jesus and the original apostles. By virtue of that, they occupy a plateau above the lower clergy and rank-and-file Catholics. A bishop will say, "We are all people of God." Okay, great, but you don't lose your job. The problem with this, from a religious standpoint, is that they have erased the historical memory of Judas the betrayer. There should be mechanisms for dismissal.

Many people have argued that the Penn State situation is an example of "protecting the brand" gone amok—that people tend to lose their moral compass when attempting to safeguard a powerful and beloved institution. What do you make of that?

I think there's something to that. One motivation of the board of trustees, clearly, is to try to contain the school's exposure to civil lawsuits. By firing people, they have at least positioned themselves to better defend the university. I would have to assume that general counsel for the university sat down with them and said, "Okay, we are probably doing to get sued. There may be many victims. This is going to get ugly. The best thing to do right now is fire the people who did this and try to regain some high ground."

From what you've seen in Catholic Church cases, what happens next?

I don't want to sound like Jeremiah with the trumpet, but I am sure that the school is in for a long legal battle with the victims. Based on everything that has been reported so far, the institution at its top level has responded well. Still, think about it: if you were the parents of that 10-year-old boy, wouldn't you want some kind of justice in the form of economic remuneration for that young person and what he is going to need going through life?