Penn State's Catholic Problem

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Recently, two distinct parts of my professional life have run together in an unexpected way. For a quarter-century, much of my scholarly research has focused on aspects of child abuse and molestation, particularly within the context of the Roman Catholic Church.

For most of that time, I was working at Penn State University, which has now been overwhelmed by the abuse scandal centered on football coach Jerry Sandusky. Many people have noted parallels between the Penn State case and the clergy scandals -- both, for instance, involved powerful, closed institutions -- but the resemblances are closer than anyone has ever observed.

And these parallels have major implications for the future course of the Penn State investigations, which are going to remain in the headlines for many years to come.

The key episode in the Penn State case occurred in early 2001, when Sandusky was reported for molesting a young boy in a shower. After intense debate, university authorities decided not to take the case to police or child protection agencies, although university president Graham Spanier acknowledged the danger that "we then become vulnerable for not having reported it." Sandusky went on to molest more children, leaving the university open to multi-million dollar civil litigation.

Even so, Penn State's problems run much deeper than the university currently seems to realize.

For one thing, it cannot claim in its defense that very different standards about child molestation cases prevailed at that time, so that nobody appreciated the gravity of the issue. Certainly, attitudes to child abuse have changed through the years, and were for instance very lax during the 1960s and 1970s -- it was only in 1977 that the term "child abuse" acquired its present meaning of sexual misconduct rather than physical violence. But public concern surged in the 1990s, in part as a consequence of the clergy abuse cases that became a national scandal. In multiple cases nationwide from 1992 onwards, church authorities were sued for knowingly placing abusive priests in situations where they would continue to assault children. By the end of the decade, media reports were already claiming that the U.S. Catholic Church had paid out a billion dollars in abuse settlements. By 2001, nobody who ever glanced at a newspaper or watched the television news had any excuse for not knowing this context.

But looking at the Catholic clergy cases also raises serious questions about the scale and chronology of the Sandusky affair. In trying to understand any abuse case, everything depends on the age of the victims, and we can only speak of "pedophiles" when an adult molests a child below the age of puberty. That distinction is critical because of what it tells us about how persistent and compulsive the offender is.

If a man has sex with an older teenager, that offense might be a single act, unlikely to be repeated. Pedophiles, on the other hand, are truly compulsive and they claim vastly more victims during their criminal careers, possibly two or three hundred. Also, they begin those careers much earlier in their lives, usually in their teens. Over a period of several decades, a pedophile priest like Massachusetts's Father John Geoghan molested hundreds.

So far, Jerry Sandusky stands convicted of multiple crimes against ten or so boys at or below the age of puberty, making him clearly a pedophile. But where are the rest of the victims? Unless Sandusky departed radically from the usual pedophile pattern, then he would have been molesting at least from the age of twenty, say, in 1964 -- though all the recent allegations refer to offenses committed since 1994.

So what about the interim, the missing thirty years, during most of which time he was employed by Penn State? Nobody becomes a pedophile overnight at age fifty.

Here again, the clergy stories offer an instructive parallel. In 1977, Jerry Sandusky founded his charity, the Second Mile, ostensibly intended to help at-risk boys, although in fact he used it to recruit potential victims. But that date is suggestive, as it falls in a narrow period when pedophiles briefly became more public and overt in their activities than ever before or since. Drawing hope from the mainstream gay rights movement, for a few years in the mid-1970s, "boy-lovers" hoped that their sexual orientation would also achieve legal status: the North American Man-Boy Love Association, NAMBLA, dates from 1978. (Obviously, in describing these deluded hopes and beliefs, I am not suggesting any authentic linkage whatever between gay rights and groups like NAMBLA).

Catholic investigations provide solid evidence that in these very years, pedophiles genuinely were more likely to act out on their desires. In 2002, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to undertake a wide-ranging study of abuse allegations against clergy. When this report appeared in 2004, it showed that between 1952 and 2002, about four percent of all priests had been the subject of plausible abuse allegations, but that these charges were distributed very unevenly over time. In fact, a stunning forty percent of those allegations focused in just a six year period, between 1975 and 1980, the very time that pedophiles hoped to go mainstream.

Against this historical background, it's natural to suggest that from its very earliest years, Sandusky was not only molesting, but that he intended the Second Mile to serve his sinister purposes. (No evidence suggests that any other person involved in the group ever shared that goal). But if there were dozens or hundreds of earlier victims, why have we not heard from them as yet? Did no hint of their sufferings come to the attention of university authorities before the late 1990s, no allegation or even rumor?

Those questions will be answered only if and when Pennsylvania changes its statutes of limitations for civil suits in abuse cases. At that point, an already ghastly case may well become far worse, and more financially ruinous. Significantly, one of the alleged Sandusky victims who is suing Penn State is represented by attorney Jeff Anderson, who has a national reputation as the scourge of Catholic dioceses.

I am left wondering why Penn State's officials made the decisions they allegedly did, in light of the then-notorious Catholic cases. Did they make the common mistake of assuming that abuse on this scale was a distinctly Catholic problem, and had nothing to do with them? In retrospect, the different cases -- secular and religious -- look closely akin.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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