US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Message received by Penn State--now what about the church?

By Elizabeth Lefebvre | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The verdict is in from the NCAA, and it’s more bad news for Penn State. In light of the sex abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the role that top school administrators played in covering it up, Penn State’s football program will face a $60 million sanction, be banned from bowl games for the next four seasons, lose scholarships, and vacate all wins since 1998. The message being sent is clear: looking the other way in the face of child abuse absolutely will not be tolerated, even if it involves a renowned athletic program of a major university.

Penn State also decided to remove a statue of legendary head coach Joe Paterno that stood outside Beaver Stadium. With the vacated wins, the late Paterno, head coach since 1966, now sits twelfth on the all-time college football win list, rather than at the top.

Reactions are ubiquitous. Some say the penalties were not harsh enough, and that a full “death penalty”—a temporary shutting down of the football program—should have been imposed. Others say that the punishment doesn't match the crime. Still, most commentators agree: Penn State deserved the harsh sentencing, because in addition to the individual who was abusing children, a major part of the problem was the culture that allowed it to continue. Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, said of the decision: "We're trying to focus the penalties where they are most likely to change the culture. We're saying to Penn State, 'Don't worry about going to the Rose Bowl next year, worry about getting the culture right and the values right and in a few years you can worry about going to bowl games.'"

Since the scandal broke, many parallels have been drawn to what has happened with the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis of the past ten years. How do we make sure the church gets the same message that Penn State received?

Today Msgr. William Lynn was charged with 3 to 6 years in prison for his role in covering up sexual abuse committed by priests who were under his supervision. This is certainly a start, but is there a Catholic Church equivalent of revoking wins and being banned from bowl games? Part of what has stood out about the Penn State case is the fact that the top administrators—including Paterno, who essentially wielded as much or more power than the university’s president—have been the ones taking the fall for what happened. No bishop has yet been charged in the church’s own crisis, though Bishop Robert Finn will go on trial September 24 for charges of failing to report abuse.

The church is a moral authority—who is the voice who can tell a moral authority about how to get its values right?

Hopefully the church will get the message from Penn State loud and clear.


Special section: Sex abuse crisis