Beyond Penn State

In reading all of the commentary on the alleged scandal unfolding at Penn State, I thought of the German word schadenfreude: taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. It is not a Catholic virtue, but it may be a Catholic temptation.  

For the first time in 10 years, the nation has apparently stumbled upon the rather obvious truth that the Catholic Church is not the only institution that has mishandled child abuse claims, nor are Catholic priests the only perpetrators who exploit their position and authority to take advantage of youth. 

This “no duh” moment has been a long time coming, but it will be a moment wasted if Americans once again wallow in the celebrity scandal aspect and miss the broader implications. 

For those few people who have not had contact with a news outlet in the past month, longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, a fixture in the Penn State community, was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. According to the allegations, nine years ago, a then-graduate assistant saw him raping a boy. The graduate student reported the incident to authorities in the football program, including head coach Joseph Paterno.  

Much ink has been spilled comparing this to the Catholic Church scandals, but what makes this particularly unusual was that there was an eyewitness to the alleged sexual encounter. The Catholic Church has paid out literally millions of dollars on the strength of the victim’s testimony alone. Here the Penn State authorities were handed a virtual smoking gun and did not respond.  

Remember, this happened in 2002. For a year or more the newspapers and airwaves had been filled with the outrage sparked by the release of the Boston archdiocesan files on abuse allegations. And yet all sorts of authorities at Penn State did … nothing! 

The ability of human beings to delude themselves into thinking that they can control or suppress scandal remains undiminished, apparently. As we keep finding out in the Catholic Church, scandals do not remain hidden, particularly when there are large incentives to make those scandals public. 

But the Penn State story is really worse than this suggests. 

First, many Catholic dioceses for a long time did much more than Penn State did. Many dioceses, even before Boston, did deal with abuse claims quickly. In addition, even in those dioceses that transferred priests, they often paid for therapeutic treatment for the abuser first. Such treatments rarely worked, but at the time, it was understood to be an acceptable response. Penn State did … nothing. 

Second, as I have written before, this is really just the tip of the iceberg. There is credible data that suggests that rates of sexual abuse in public schools dwarfs the Church’s record, yet there is no systematic investigation, and lawyers are rarely interested because public schools are shielded from punitive damages. Other cases proceed quietly against the Boy Scouts, sports teams and more, but these cases never attract the national attention that the Church has received, until Penn State.  

And it continues: A Nov. 13 story in an Indiana newspaper reported on a 2010 federal study claiming that more than a third of children in juvenile correction facilities in the state had been sexually abused. Conditions at one institution for girls were so bad that a judge refused to send kids there.  

Sexual abuse, pedophilia and child pornography are nightmares that are plaguing our communities, families and institutions. What is unfortunate is that so many institutions have not committed themselves to doing what the Catholic Church now does: annual audits, screening all volunteers, and educating its children.  

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.