July 27, 2012

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Penn State scandal is a reminder that sexual abuse affects all of society

Sean GallagherOn July 30, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced massive penalties against Penn State University’s football program during a press conference at the college sports sanctioning body’s headquarters in Indianapolis.

The penalties were handed down as punishment for the sexual abuse of minors carried out over several years by former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and the efforts of university officials, including Penn State’s former head coach, the legendary and now deceased Joe Paterno, to cover up Sandusky’s crimes.

The press conference took place a day after a statue of Paterno outside Penn State’s football stadium in University Park was removed, and two weeks after the university released the findings of an investigation into the scandal conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh.

The tragedy of what happened at Penn State cannot help but remind us in the Catholic Church of the evil acts of sexual abuse committed against young people by clergy for decades that came more fully to light in 2002.

Church leaders responded to that scandal by establishing comprehensive procedures to care for the victims and to prevent such abuse from occurring in the future.

Those procedures include training clergy, religious, employees and volunteers to spot possible abusive situations and take steps to end them. Yearly audits make sure that dioceses comply with these and other procedures.

Church leaders also pledged to cooperate immediately with law enforcement officials when they learn of allegations of sexual abuse by clergy or others who minister in the name of the Church.

And, of course, a zero-tolerance policy against abusers was established. Anyone in the Church who sexually abuses others while ministering in its name will never carry on such ministry in the future.

In addition, Church leaders also used the tragedy to raise awareness that sexual abuse is a problem for society as a whole, not just within the Catholic Church.

Sexual abuse of children sadly often occurs in many homes, schools and other institutions around the country every year.

A bright spotlight was shined on the heinous crimes in the Penn State scandal primarily because of its famous football program and the horror of Sandusky’s acts.

The steps taken by the Church to prevent sexual abuse of children have actually helped the Catholic Church become a leader in the prevention of sexual abuse of minors in the U.S. and elsewhere.

If such procedures are lacking in athletic programs at various levels or other places where children may be at risk, perhaps leaders could look to the response of the Catholic Church to its own sexual abuse scandal for possible steps to be taken.

While Church leaders would be happy to help further the effort to protect children from abuse, that does not convince us that all of our own problems are now solved and that abuse will never take place again in the Church.

Although the numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years, credible charges of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and other ministers in the Church are still made every year. And one charge by itself is too much.

The tragedy of what happened at Penn State should sadden all of us for the evil inflicted on innocent children.

But it should also inspire us to always be vigilant and determined to never let it happen again within the Church and in society at large.
 

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)

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