Comparing Penn State and the Catholic Church

I’ll keep this brief, because there’s nothing worse than when people get all preachy about very serious subjects. But there have been a lot of folks trying to draw parallels between the current scandal at Penn State and the Catholic Church abuse scandal, which had its epicenter in Boston. On the surface, the comparison is tempting: in both cases, exalted people in high places put children at risk, thus shattering the faith of their followers.

But it seems to me, when you think about it, the cases are very different. At Penn State, what happened appears to be isolated. Joe Paterno and administrators at the school failed to deal properly with one individual. That doesn’t make their negligence any less awful and they probably do all deserve to lose their jobs, but unless we start hearing about all sorts of other Penn State or other college football coaches who committed abuse, it’s just a fact.

On the other hand, what happened with the Catholic Church was widespread and systemic. The abuse there was symptomatic of something larger. As USA Today noted today in a story discussing just those parallels:

Between 1950 and 2002, according to a John Jay College of Criminal Justice study, 10,667 individuals had made allegations against clergy or church employees or volunteers. Annual studies conducted between 2004 and 2010 have added 4,988 credible reports of abuse, according to statistics provided by the bishops’ group.

The story added, “The people of the community around State College, the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., had at least two dozen priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors, according to”

The only point here, really, is that as tempting as it is to compare Joe Paterno to, say, Bernard Law, it’s worth remembering that Law’s sins were of a different nature and on an entirely different scale. While Paterno failed to seek out the proper authorities, Law, basically as a policy, actively covered up for abusive priests. One more difference: while Paterno has lost his job, Bernie Law is still living it up in the Vatican.