Rewriting Paterno's Playbook
What the church must learn from Penn State’s child abuse scandal

On November 6, 2011, Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State defensive coordinator, was charged with molesting eight young boys between 1994 and 2009. Although he retired from Penn State's football staff in 1999, he continued to use the school's facilities for his work with The Second Mile, a nonprofit he founded in 1977 to assist at-risk kids.

Allegations against Sandusky range from sexual advances to touching to oral and anal sex. And even though there were some eye witness accounts of these actions that were brought to university and football staff's attention in the course of the 15 years in question, Sandusky was never held accountable or reported to the proper authorities for suspicion of child sexual abuse.

Penn State's scandal bears many of the same traits as clergy abuse scandals—and many similar repercussions. For instance, there are at least eight young men today who are living with the emotional scars of being sexually abused by an adult they trusted. If statistics bear out, there may well be others who were also victimized but are suffering in silence. Penn State will surely be facing years of litigation to find some way to compensate the victims and their families.

So far four Penn State employees have lost their job, and more could follow as details surface. A school's whose reputation sparkled is now faced with the daunting task of rebuilding its reputation, and The Second Mile faces a similar task.

Given the scope of damage that's done in a child sexual abuse case, churches would do well to learn from Penn State's mistakes.

Abusing trust

First, like a pastor whom everyone adored, Sandusky was respected and trusted. As a coach and an advocate for children, he had earned a position of trust on and off the football field—a trust that afforded him great latitude to operate without question. In reality, he was abusing this position of trust within the school and community to prey on young boys. Who would ever suspect a college football coach of abusing a child? Especially one who devoted his time and energy to helping kids? People assumed he was above reproach.

Sex abusers know that if they can ingratiate themselves to their victims and everyone around them, they will not be suspected of wrongdoing. Earning trust is Job One for a predator. They earn trust by singling out vulnerable children and becoming their "friends." Often, they will give a child gifts and go above and beyond by spending time with him or her to build a relationship. Through their loving actions toward the child, they will earn the respect and trust of other adults in the child's life. Predators often will target kids who only have one parent in the home.

In Reducing the Risk: Keeping Your Ministry Safe from Child Sexual Abuse, a training curriculum for churches, author and church attorney Richard Hammar writes, "Ministries have unique features that can make them vulnerable to incidents of child molestation. They tend to be trusting and unsuspecting institutions. Even when questions are raised about a worker's conduct, leaders may ignore the evidence rather than question the worker's character and motives."

This was certainly the case at Penn State. From the janitor who witnessed Sandusky performing oral sex on a young boy to the allegations by a grad student who told head coach Joe Paterno that he saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy of about 10 years old in the school's showers, Penn State coaching staff and officials had been given information that required them by law to report Sandusky to the police. And yet no one made the extra effort for the victims' sake. Instead, they kept the secrets in-house. Accusing Sandusky of being a child molester would no doubt disrupt the whole family and create a rift on all sides. And Penn State, like a lot of churches, is one big, loyal family.

When it's right to tell secrets

Churches, like football teams, are close-knit units that tend to operate like families, which keep secrets, often in an effort to keep the peace. Many churches mistakenly attempt to deal with sensitive matters like this internally rather than expose individuals publicly. But Penn State is a prime example of the harm that is done when we fail to give up secrets. As of the writing of this article, Paterno, school president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz all have been fired for failing to report what they knew to the proper authorities. Schultz and Curley are also being charged with perjury. Others may follow.

Pennsylvania, like every state in America, has child abuse reporting laws. These laws mandate that certain persons in positions of authority must report even a suspicion of child abuse. Depending on the state, this can include coaches, college officials, teachers, pastors, and others who work closely with children. In Penn State's case, the individuals who had information either didn't know of their legal obligation to report, or they knew and chose to disregard the law, In either case, their failure to report put more boys in harms' way.

It is imperative that ministers know what the definition of reportable "child abuse" is under their state's child abuse reporting law, whether or not they are a mandatory reporter of child abuse, and what to do if they learn of child abuse in the course of a conversation that is protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Also, church leaders, as well as football coaches, need to know how to report child abuse. The biannual 50-state Child Abuse Reporting Laws for Churches answers all of these questions and provides a comprehensive list of each state's laws that relates to church leaders' reporting obligation.

Building a strong defensive line

Churches, like all organizations that run programs for kids, need to establish screening and selection procedures that ferret out potential predators and create a firewall of protection around the kids through proper supervision practices. For example, Sandusky was allowed easy access to young boys because of his longstanding reputation as a successful defensive coordinator. Nobody questioned him spending time alone with boys, or even bringing a young boy on an overnight stay. It's doubtful that anyone ever ran a background check on him, especially since he established the foundation for at-risk youth himself.

Similarly, even after 30-plus years of clergy abuse scandals coming to light in the church, churches are still notoriously slow to implement background searches on adults who work with kids. Research from our 2008 Child Abuse Prevention Study showed that many churches still suffer from the "it'll never happen to us" syndrome. People want to believe the best about each other, and the thought of running a faithful volunteer through a criminal background check is distasteful and awkward.

But try picturing someone assaulting your 10-year-old son. Suddenly distasteful and awkward seem like a small price to pay for keeping a child safe. Wherever children are involved, whether in a program like The Second Mile or a church's Sunday school, special measures need to be in place to protect children precisely because they are not able to defend themselves.

When students at Penn State heard that Paterno had been fired for his part in the scandal, they stormed the streets and rioted against college officials. No one wants to see an innocent man accused of wrongdoing. And watching a football legend's career end in such a dismal manner is heartbreaking, to be sure. If any good can come out of the Penn State scandal, it's that Paterno stands as an example to everyone—college officials, church leaders, teachers, citizens, everyone—that child abuse should be not be ignored. It must be reported to the proper authorities, and if the first report it doesn't result in action, then additional effort must be made. We have a moral obligation to ensure that children are protected from abuse and fully defended when it does occur. Right now, I'll bet Paterno, and the entire faculty at Penn State, would give anything—even forfeit this undefeated season— for a chance to re-play this one.

Marian V. Liautaud is editor of Christianity Today's church management resources, including Reducing the Risk child sexual abuse training curriculum for churches. She also serves as managing editor of

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

Recent Posts
Subscribe to Church, Law & Tax
Protecting Church Property

Protecting Church Property

What you can do to prevent burglarly, robbery, and vandalism at church.
Preparing Your Church for Any Emergency

Preparing Your Church for Any Emergency

Learn disaster management techniques and create your response strategies