Penn State can take lessons from the Church

  • November 22, 2011

The tragic child sex abuse scandal at Penn State opens many wounds for Catholics.

During the first seven-10 days after the story broke, almost every media report compared the scandal to abuse that has rocked the Catholic Church over past decades. The comparisons have not totally abated, either.

“Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique,” declared the National Post on Nov. 14.

Or entitling a story “How Penn State and the Catholic Church covered up sexual abuse and what we can do to stop it.” The author writes: “The scandals that have wracked the Catholic Church in recent decades, and especially in recent years, are too many to name. But the same pattern of institutional self-preservation exists. The same power asymmetry between the abuser and the abused exists, and the same opacity of information exists.”

The Boston Globe even chided that Penn State should “coach” the Catholic Church because at least the school fired the top guys who turned a blind eye.

I am not about to defend the Church’s record on past abuse and cover-ups, but mainstream media (and others with a Catholic axe to grind) are missing an important point: the Church has acted and has put in place strict protocols to help protect children. These protocols, which have been amended and refined over the past decade or so, require bishops to immediately involve police when crimes are suspected. And if such protocols were in place at Penn State, the alleged perpetrator, Jerry Sandusky, would have been found out years ago and many, many children would not have been abused.

The archdiocese of Toronto’s procedures are transparent and not dissimilar to other archdioceses. Anyone can make a confidential allegation of abuse or misconduct directly to the judicial vicar via phone or e-mail. The judicial vicar’s office is compelled to immediately investigate any allegation.

“Our prime concerns are for the care of the complainant who is hurting, and the prevention of abuse and misconduct,” states the Policy & Procedure for Cases of Alleged Misconduct. “Recognizing that coming forward with an allegation of abuse or misconduct is difficult, the person who first hears the complaint will treat the complainant with great care and compassion, and will encourage the complainant to talk with the judicial vicar. We respect the complainant’s right to privacy and confidentiality.”

The procedures are available for anyone to read at Among the procedures that could have prevented the Penn State scandal is one saying if minors are involved, the Children’s Aid Society must be alerted within one hour of the complaint being received. One hour. Other authorities, including police, may also be called.

At Penn State, an assistant coach told the grand jury that in 2002 he witnessed the rape of a 10- or 11-year-old boy in the locker room showers. But he did not call police or any outside authorities. He told then-head coach Joe Paterno, who told university administrators, who did not tell police. They simply took the keys to university buildings away from Sandusky, who has admitted publicly to “horsing around” with boys in the shower, but denies any sexual acts.

Back to the Church’s procedures, Toronto’s judicial vicar, who acts as the archbishop’s delegate, also has far-reaching powers during each investigation, whether children are involved or not, and may do one or more of the following at any time:

o After being advised of the allegation, the respondent may be placed on an immediate administrative leave;

o In the case of a cleric, an appropriate residence may be assigned pending the outcome of the investigation;

o A priest’s faculties to preach and hear confessions may be removed. He may be forbidden the exercise of any public ministry, including the public celebration of the Eucharist, and he may be instructed to cease wearing clerical garb;

o The respondent may be prevented further contact, direct or indirect, with certain individuals, identified by name or in some other way including parish residency.

The judicial vicar’s office keeps a written record of all steps taken from the moment the allegation is first received and this record is not to be destroyed, even after the death of the respondent.

Sins of the past cannot be undone. The Church did foster a “see-no-evil” culture that put children in harm’s way. There is anger and there is shame felt by so many Catholics over their Church’s inaction in the past.

But the Church has also worked to ensure crimes of a past generation are not repeated. Will such rules prevent all child abuse in the future? Perhaps not all, but the Church has worked to fix such an abhorrent problem, including better filtering of cleric candidates and better training for all working and volunteering within the Church.

And the mainstream media relentlessly linking the Catholic Church to Penn State is disingenuous by ignoring or downplaying new measures by the Church to help protect children.

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