Reflections Blog

Empowering a Predator

Louis Freeh’s just-released report on the Penn State sexual abuse scandal leaves little doubt that the senior leaders at Penn State, including revered football coach Joe Paterno, were culpable by enabling Jerry Sandusky to continue his abuse of boys for over a decade.  Assuming that Freeh’s findings are true—and we have no reason to question his integrity, or the thoroughness of his team’s investigations, or Sandusky’s guilt—then what we have witnessed is a colossal and egregious failure of leadership. 

Nothing can excuse the fact that Penn State’s leaders knew about Sandusky’s conduct and did virtually nothing to investigate the early allegations, report him to the police, remove him from the campus, or do anything else to protect his victims and prevent him from victimizing other children.  It seems clear from Freeh’s lengthy report that the primary concern of those Penn State leaders was to prevent negative publicity and protect the university—and this is shameful example of misplaced priorities and irresponsibility by people who certainly knew that Sandusky’s conduct was illegal, immoral, and reprehensible.

Leadership is a position of trust, particularly when we appoint leaders to run public institutions like Penn State University.  We (the public) have to trust that those leaders have fidelity to charters of those institutions, to the highest moral standards of society, and to the honor and integrity those institutions represent.  It is misguided, then, when leaders like former Penn State President Graham Spanier, former Vice President Gary Schultz, former athletic director Tim Curley, and former head football coach Joe Paterno consider it more important to shield the institution from bad publicity than to vigorously investigate alleged wrongdoing and quickly bring it to light.

Ironically, they have done more harm to Penn State by turning a blind eye to Sandusky’s ongoing sexual abuse of boys than if they had dealt with it in the late 1990’s when the initial allegations were brought to their attention.  Had they acted swiftly and resolutely then, Penn State might have suffered brief bad publicity, but the public would have applauded their swift action to protect children from a predator.

Penn State is a great and proud institution of higher learning, and it will survive this crisis.  But their will forever be a footnote in Joe Paterno’s life story that will sully the reputation of a man who should have known better, who should have been outraged at Sandusky’s conduct, who should have banned him from the athletic facilities until the initial allegations were investigated, who should have considered the welfare of Sandusky’s victims more important than any other consideration, and who should have publicly and dramatically denounced Sandusky once the allegations were proven.

Freeh’s report gives the attorneys of Sandusky’s victims ample ammunition in future civil suits against the university.  The university, because of the willful neglect of its senior leaders, is culpable and should be forced to pay restitution to Sandusky’s many victims.  It’s a shame because the tens of millions the university will have to pay could have gone to scholarships or faculty salaries or capital improvements or other things that would have enhanced student education.  But it’s even more shameful that more boys were victimized by Sandusky for 14 years after Penn State officials initially learned that something was amiss in Sandusky’s relationship with children.

We adults are responsible for looking out for the welfare of children, not just our own children but all children in our society, and we expect the leaders of our institutions to be especially mindful of the trust we place in them to lead those institutions well, to safeguard those the institution serves, and to ensure that the people working for those institutions behave legally, ethically, and responsibly.  Penn State’s leaders during Sandusky’s reign of abuse failed to do this, and they deserve our scorn.

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