What can the church learn from Penn State?

It didn’t take long after news broke of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky being charged with the sexual abuse of male students for pundits to make the inevitable comparison to the Catholic Church’s own abuse scandal. But with as many similarities as there were early on, they came to a screeching halt when the university’s Board of Trustees last night announced the firing of both legendary head coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier.

In a story that’s now been widely reported, Sandusky was arrested last weekend and two additional employees of the university were charged with perjury and failing to offer up details they had on allegations against the former coach. Paterno and Spanier, both of whom allegedly knew of allegations and referred them to others within the university, aren’t being charged with any legal wrongdoing. But the university sent a loud and clear message that even if the law doesn’t hold them accountable, there’s still a serious moral issue with their behavior.

All of this likely sounds too familiar to those who closely followed the church’s cover up of abuse allegations. There were many priests and bishops who, like Paterno and Spanier, decided that handling things internally was more appropriate than calling the police. Most of them still hold positions of authority in the church, like former Boston archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law, who just last week had a plush celebration for his 80th birthday in Rome. The result, nearly a decade after the abuse scandal in the church first became national news, has been ongoing pain for the victims and a disillusionment with the church and its leadership among many in the pews–if they’re even still coming to Mass.

Apparently, Penn State’s Board of Trustees was taking notes. Even though the 84-year-old Paterno announced yesterday that he’d retire at the end of this season, they still wanted to make a statement with his firing. He didn’t get to go out on his own terms. He didn’t get a big sendoff in his last game. And he certainly didn’t get a cushy Vatican gig where can spend the rest of his days living comfortably.

It is unfortunate that Paterno, a revered presence at Penn State, had to be made an example. His reputation is forever tarnished, and his great career accomplishments will always come with the stigma of how it all ended. But kudos to Penn State for making the decision, even if it proves unpopular on campus.They’ve now set the standard that other universities will be held to if something similar should take place.

The firings of Paterno and Spanier say that if there’s any chance someone is being sexually abused, and you hear about it, you’d better do everything in your power to act on it and alert the proper authorities. Sure, it may turn out to be a false accusation, but not saying anything creates the risk that more minors will be harmed. And that’s a price that none of us should ever be willing to pay.

Hopefully this time, the Catholic Church is taking notes too.