Recently, two distinct parts of my professional life have run together in an unexpected way. For a quarter-century, much of my scholarly research has focused on aspects of child abuse and molestation, particularly within the context of the Roman Catholic Church.

For most of that time, I was working at Penn State University, which has now been overwhelmed by the abuse scandal centered on football coach Jerry Sandusky. Many people have noted parallels between the Penn State case and the clergy scandals — both, for instance, involved powerful, closed institutions — but the resemblances are closer than anyone has ever observed.

And these parallels have major implications for the future course of the Penn State investigations, which are going to remain in the headlines for many years to come.

The key episode in the Penn State case occurred in early 2001, when Sandusky was reported for molesting a young boy in a shower. After intense debate, university authorities decided not to take the case to police or child protection agencies, although university president Graham Spanier acknowledged the danger that “we then become vulnerable for not having reported it.” Sandusky went on to molest more children, leaving the university open to multi-million dollar civil litigation.

Even so, Penn State’s problems run much deeper than the university currently seems to realize.

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