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US Child Abuse Scandal Tarnishes University, Football Coach

  • Nico Colombant

Pennsylvania State University students hold candles during a vigil to show their support for sexual abuse victims involved in the recent controversy at their school, November 11, 2011.

Pennsylvania State University students hold candles during a vigil to show their support for sexual abuse victims involved in the recent controversy at their school, November 11, 2011.

The arrest on child-abuse charges of a one-time assistant football coach at a prominent American university has quickly broadened into a major scandal. The president of Pennsylvania State University and the school's enormously popular football coach, Joe Paterno, have been dismissed, and further consequences are expected.

Penn State, as the school is called in the U.S., reacted decisively to show its senior officials must be held accountable if they fail to take action against such abuse.

The recent arrest of the former defensive coordinator for the Penn State university football team, Gerald Sandusky, created a cascade of events dominating U.S. media headlines.

Sandusky is being charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a period of 15 years. Several more accusers have come forward to police. Sandusky denies the accusations, and his lawyer says he has already been tried in the court of public opinion.

Still, the arrest did not take long to have other effects.

Legendary football coach Joe Paterno, who was still coaching at the age of 84, with a record 409 victories to his credit, was fired, as were top university officials.

Angry sports commentators are saying the entire football team, which brings the university more than $50 million in profit every year, should also quit its season now.

Paterno had been told about Sandusky violating a boy in 2002. At the time, Sandusky was running a charity for foster children with activities at the football team’s practice center. Paterno told his superiors but not police.

Child abuse in the United States is mainly the responsibility of states and local governments.

In Pennsylvania, telling your superiors is what you are mandated to do, while in other states failure to report knowing about child abuse can be a crime.

Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan was clear about his priorities.

"This is not a case about football, about universities. It is a case about children who have had their innocence stolen from them, in a culture that did nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others,” he said.

There had been other allegations against Sandusky which had also been ignored.

Similar scandals with attempted cover-ups have affected other schools in the United States, as well as the Catholic Church.

In recent decades, thousands of victims have come forward saying they were sexually abused as children by Catholic priests.

Jon O’Brien, president of a Washington-based group called Catholics for Choice, says the Catholic Church made huge mistakes in dealing with its own scandals.

"The sexual abuse of children was outrageous," he said. "The cover-up, the subsequent cover-up, though, is what I think fundamentally disappoints and hurts so many of us, inside and outside the Church. Because we recognize that there has not been the type of far-reaching efforts to both identify what went wrong and what was the mindset that actually cannot admit, 'We made a mistake.'"

The Penn State University board of trustees moved quickly after the arrest to fire top university officials and coach Paterno. The board is now forming a special committee to investigate the school’s handling of the still unfolding Sandusky scandal.

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