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Commentary: Penn State, Catholic Church share tragic parallels

In March 2002, a graduate assistant in Penn State's storied football program stopped by the training facility on a Friday night and witnessed something horrific.

Over the next couple of weeks, the staffer would meet with football coach Joe Paterno, as well as the university's athletic director and a university vice president. According to his testimony to a grand jury, he told them he'd seen Jerry Sandusky, a retired assistant coach who still had access to the university's athletic facilities, sodomizing a child in the shower.

The university's response - criminally inadequate, the grand jury has alleged - was to tell Sandusky he could no longer bring children onto the Penn State campus. No one called the police or attempted to find the victimized child.

Contain and conceal.

As a Penn State graduate, class of '77, I can attest that Nittany Lion football is a religion. And we, the faithful, must note with mortification the parallels with the Catholic Church and its mishandling of child sexual abuse allegations.

In Kansas City, a computer technician alerted officials of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph to hundreds of explicit images of children on a laptop belonging to a priest. The church relieved the Rev. Shawn Ratigan from his post as pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church and sent him to live at a mission house. Not until five months later, when more disturbing images turned up, did officials alert the police.

Contain and conceal.

It is the tactic that officials attempt when they place the well-being of their institutions and people affiliated with them above the safety of children and above the law.

It is an arrogant, ignorant strategy that leads only to doom.

With pedophiles, there are no isolated incidents.

Ratigan, after being instructed to have no more contact with children, allegedly attempted to take pornographic photos of a young girl while he was based at the mission house. He faces state and federal charges.

As for Sandusky, he continued to have access to young boys through a charity that he founded. According to the grand jury report, he favored selected children with gifts, trips and stays at his home. In return, prosecutors allege, the boys were expected to submit to his sexual advances.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said this week that the failure of top Penn State officials to properly report the claims of abuse "likely allowed a child predator to continue to victimize children for many, many years." Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period.

The world will never be able to fully comprehend the damage to children who are subjected to sexual abuse. Adult survivors say they experience flashbacks and terrors. They are often unable to form healthy relationships or look at the world as a safe and happy place.

The consequences for the adults who failed to protect them are more readily apparent. In Kansas City, Bishop Robert Finn has the distinction of becoming the highest-ranking Catholic official to face criminal charges in a case involving child abuse. He is charged with failure to report suspected abuse and could face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The indictment of a bishop was big news but not as big as the Penn State University Board of Trustees' announcement Wednesday that it had fired 84-year-old Joe Paterno, the legend, architect of the most wins in the history of major college football. Fired, along with university President Graham B. Spanier. Fired, and rightly so.

The athletic director and vice president who were told of the 2002 incident are also gone, and face charges of failing to report suspected abuse and of lying to the grand jury.

Penn State football and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph had in common that they were run by all-male, insular hierarchies that mistakenly thought their position and mission placed them above the obligations that bind ordinary citizens. They thought they could control the damage.

Contain and conceal.

They were wrong. So very wrong.


Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at