Criminal Justice

Do Same-Day Convictions of Ex-Penn State Asst. Coach and Catholic Church Official Signify a New Era?

In the wake of convictions Friday in two separate high-profile child sex-abuse cases in a single state involving powerful and revered institutions, observers are suggesting that a new era of holding accountable both perpetrators and those who shield them has dawned—or should be dawning.

Found guilty on 45 of 48 counts, retired Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky could spend the rest of his life in prison, unless he successfully appeals his conviction. Two university officials accused of lying to a grand jury have yet to be tried in a perjury case, and substantial civil litigation is expected against Penn State and others by victims and claimed victims of the former coach.

Meanwhile, Monsignor William Lynn of the Philadelphia Archdiocese was convicted on only one child endangerment count for failing to protect a youngster from sex abuse, and acquitted on two others. However, his case is significant because it is reportedly the first time a U.S. court has held a senior official of the Roman Catholic church accountable for what a number of cases have alleged to be a common practice for decades past of covering up misconduct by priests rather than protecting their child victims.

In an editorial, the Philadelphia Inquirer called for the state legislature to eliminate the barrier presented by the statute of limitations for both criminal prosecution and civil litigation concerning long-ago child sex abuse cases.

And even without any change in the law, not only can significant civil litigation be expected in the Penn State case but, potentially, further criminal charges against university officials, according to the Associated Press and the New York Daily News.

The Lynn conviction on Friday “sends a message that they can no longer operate above the law,” said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer representing three claimed victims in the Sandusky case, of the Catholic Church. “That is historic and is reverberating throughout clerical culture in American at highest levels.”

The Daily News reports that he called the parallels between the two cases “striking and identical: an all-male culture that is deeply entrenched around power, money and influence; that is insulated from accountability and where powerful offenders are being given a safe harbor by powerful men who choose to put the reputation of the institution above the well-being and safety of children.”

Anderson said he hoped that the law in other states, including New York, also would be changed to make it easier to pursue child sex-abuse cases. However, even under current law in Pennsylvania, he said he hoped to obtain information in depositions in civil litigation that could potentially lead to further criminal charges.

In a written statement shortly after the jury verdict was announced in Sandusky’s case, the president of Penn State suggested that the university would be interested in making quick settlements with victims in the criminal case, saying that Penn State “wants to provide a forum where the university can privately, expeditiously and fairly address the victims’ concerns and compensate them for claims.”

Sandusky’s defense team says he plans to appeal and maintains his innocence.

Additional coverage:

Associated Press: “Sandusky scrubbed: Mural artist replaces image”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (opinion): “Individual crimes, institutional sins: guilty all”

Washington Post (opinion): “Sandusky scandal had one perpetrator, and many accomplices”

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