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From the Vatican to Penn State

“There is only one religion although there are a hundred versions of it.”

— George Bernard Shaw, Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant.

Penn State and the Vatican have some things in common (although there’s been no talk of shutting down the Vatican whereas a few curmudgeons suggested Penn State shut down its football program for a year; nor is there any talk at the Vatican of firing its head coach,  Benedict XVI, whereas Penn State fired both its president,  Graham Spanier, and its head coach, Joe Paterno.) The Vatican and Penn State each has formal reports describing the errors of the institution’s ways. Penn State has a grand jury report detailing sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky and the Vatican has four formal reports detailing multiple accounts of sexual abuse by assorted priests in Ireland (to mention only one of many countries with such reports.)  The last two pertaining to Ireland were the Murphy Report in 2009 and the Cloyne report in 2011.

The Murphy Report examined more than 300 abuse claims in the Archdiocese of Dublin between 1975 and 2004.  (The Murphy for whom the report is named is not Father Lawrence Murphy who abused more than 200 deaf children in Wisconsin between 1950 and 1974.  Father Murphy did not write a report detailing his activities and those who did, did so in letters describing his activities to top Vatican officials including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict.  The letters were ignored.) The Murphy report said that rather than being concerned about the children, the Church was concerned about “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church and the preservation of its assets.”  In response to the Murphy report,  Pope Benedict sent out a pastoral letter on March 19, 2010.  In that letter he said he shared “in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them. . . .”

The Murphy report was followed by the Cloyne Report that was released in July 2011.  That report said that from 1996 to 2009 the clergy in Ireland’s Cloyne Diocese ignored complaints about 19 priests.  In response to the Cloyne report the Vatican said enough contrition is enough contrition and recalled its ambassador, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, the Papal Nuncio, to the Vatican, for consultation.  Vatican Spokesman, Fr Ciro Benedettini said:  “The recalling of the Nuncio, a measure rarely used by the Holy See, denotes the seriousness of the situation, and the desire of the Holy See to deal with it (with) objectivity and with determination, as well as a certain note of surprise and regret regarding some excessive reactions.”  In referring to “excessive reactions” the spokesman may have been referring to the speech to Parliament given by Ireland’s prime minister four  days earlier in which he referred to the Church’s  dysfunction, disconnection and elitism” in failing to deal with child sex abuse.  He said:  “The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation.’”   On November 3, 2011, Ireland closed its Vatican embassy.  Dublin’s foreign ministry said the closure occurred because the embassy “yields no economic return.” Presumably it has nothing to do with the Vatican recall of the Ambassador 4 months earlier.

Happy Valley is a lot like the Vatican except that football is its religion. Instead of the Murphy Report and the Coyne Report, folks in Happy Valley have the Grand Jury report.  Its substance is not that different from the  Irish reports, however.  According to the Grand Jury report those in charge of the institution have been willing to overlook sexual abuse of children by one of its high priests, Jerry Sandusky, the high priest whose high jinks have disgraced  the institution.

Mr. Sandusky is not only alleged to have abused children over an extended period.  He set up a non-profit foundation called Second Mile the goal of which was to provide programs for troubled youth. The kinds of conduct in which Mr. Sandusky allegedly engaged in with troubled youth is not the kind of conduct contributors to the foundation thought they were supporting.

In response to the Grand Jury report,  some suggested that as an expression of penance Penn State should forfeit its last home game against Nebraska.  That would be like suggesting that the Vatican cancel Sunday services to show that it really cared about sexual abuse of children.  It would never happen. After all, Sunday services are a time when the offenders can formally seek forgiveness and so was the last home game against Nebraska.  The occasion of the final home game was marked by many as the time to move forward and the beginning of the healing process since the university has now had more than a week to flagellate itself.

Although there are many similarities between the church and Penn State there is one significant difference.  The era of sexual abuse of children at Penn State has almost certainly come to an end.  That cannot be said for the Church.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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