Give Penn State this much. They fired the men at the top — the university president and legendary football coach Joe Paterno — within days of the arrest of a former coach charged with molesting numerous boys over 15 years.
More than 10 years after the biggest child sex crime cover-up in American history, no one at the top of the Catholic Church has paid a big price. The cardinals protect the pope. The pope protects the cardinals. Joe Paterno’s horrible sin of omission — failure to make sure police investigated Jerry Sandusky’s alleged assault of a 10-year-old boy — cannot compare with hundreds of sins of omission by former Cardinal Bernard Law. Then there are Law’s sins of commission: shipping known pedophiles off to unsuspecting parishes and even writing these priests letters of recommendation.
Law, however, just celebrated his 80th birthday in style in Rome where Catholics, whether they want to or not, have paid for his tenure at one of the city’s most grand basilicas. Since being forced from Boston in 2002 and arriving there in 2004, Law amassed considerable power on numerous Vatican committees, including ones that choose bishops.
Not one American bishop has been “fired” either, although at least 22 have been accused of multiple molestations. Yet nearly all of those still alive retain the title of bishop emeritus and are, again, supported by Catholics’ donations. The first and only indictment of a bishop occurred just last month in Kansas City.
“No one in the hierarchy paid a price and Law got a promotion,” sums up Anne Barrett Doyle who, with Terence McKiernan, operates BishopsAccountability.org, the most comprehensive compendium of church crimes. The contrast between Penn State’s quick firings and Pennsylvania prosecutors’ aggressive investigation — and what happened here — could not be starker.
Yet there are obvious similarities between the church and Penn State football as well.
Both are all-male, powerful, tradition-heavy hierarchies devoted to maintaining image. Both tried to handle their scandals internally rather than give police and prosecutors control. Both preach righteousness. Paterno spoke constantly about character. The football team’s motto: “success with honor.”
Both coaches and priests (though less so now) are revered, trusted and admired. Parent after parent in the church mess said they were thrilled, even flattered, when a priest took special interest in their child. Coaches mentor boys and help them make the right teams. Jerry Sandusky allegedly gave at least one victim clothes, cash, a computer and access not just at Penn State but also to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Sandusky attack witnessed by assistant coach Mike McQueary happened in 2002, when the church scandal was huge news. Paterno, a practicing Catholic, must have known about it.
It makes you wonder if there’s something about sex crimes and children that powerful, male institutions just can’t handle. Instead of witnessing an alleged rape, had McQueary seen Sandusky beating up a young boy, would his and his bosses’ reactions been different?
I don’t know. But here’s my guess: yes.
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