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    The Penn State Scandal – An Ethical Meltdown

    November 25, 2011

November 25, 2011

The Penn State Scandal – An Ethical Meltdown

There are many dimensions to leadership. One of those is an ethical dimension, which often remains unacknowledged until circumstances conspire to bring it into full public view. Consider the Penn State sex abuse scandal which exploded into our national consciousness on November 5, 2011.  It is instructive because it shows how, within an institutional setting, ethical lapses can cascade, wreaking destruction like the waves of a tsunami tearing through a coastal city.

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Jerry Sandusky

Like so many stories of child abuse, the Penn State scandal has a long timeline.  The alleged abuse of young boys by former football Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky began in 1994 and continued at least until 2008.  After numerous complaints over a ten year period, investigations into Sandusky’s behavior began in November, 2008, and resulted in a Grand Jury report which led to his arrest on November 5, 2011.

Sandusky, 67, coached at Penn State for more than 30 years. From 1977 until his retirement last year, Sandusky had also run a foster home in State College, Pa., for troubled children called The Second Mile.  Sandusky founded the organization in 1977 as a group home for troubled boys, accepting children who would benefit from positive human interaction. The charity has expanded into a statewide charity with eight chapters across Pennsylvania.  Many of Sandusky’s alleged victims were boys from The Second Mile.

The buildup to Sandusky’s ultimate arrest may have been slow, but the consequences following the release of the Grand Jury report have been swift and stunning to those who were unaware of what had been taking place over the years.

joe-paterno

Joe Paterno

In the space of a few weeks, Joe Paterno, a college football legend with more wins than any other coach in history, was fired.  Tim Curley, the university’s Athletic Director resigned and was charged with perjury and failing to report suspected abuse.  Gary Schultz, VP for Business and Finance resigned and was indicted for perjury and failure to report suspected abuse.  Graham Spanier, President of the university was fired along with Paterno by the university’s Board of Trustees. And Jack Raykovitz, CEO of The Second Mile, was forced to resign leaving the future of the charity in doubt.

As in many such cases, there were opportunities to stop the abuse early on, but in each instance, allegations were not referred to the police.  Instead, those responsible for handling the matter chose to conduct internal inquiries.  This leaves a strong impression that the need to protect the victims was a lower priority than the desire to protect the institutions where the abuse took place.  In the fallout that has already occurred and will continue for years to come, the institutions have been irreparably damaged.

All the individuals involved in the scandal claimed they were doing the appropriate thing,  but in each case there was an ethical lapse.  Joe Paterno’s case is instructive.  He is easily the highest profile figure in the scandal, and came under intense pressure for his alleged primary role in the abuse scandal. He was reportedly the first to know about the alleged abuse.  As Time correspondent Nick Carbone noted in a recent article:

Paterno hasn’t been charged, and the Grand Jury investigation notes that Paterno appropriately reported the abuse to a higher level, alerting Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley about the incident. “Joe Paterno was a witness who cooperated and testified before the Grand Jury,” said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office. “He’s not a suspect.” Pennsylvania state Police Commissioner Frank Noonan also said that Paterno fulfilled his legal requirement to report the matter upon referring it to Curley.

But meeting the legal requirement is not enough in such situations; there is a more demanding moral and ethical requirement to which we are held in such cases.  Meeting the legal requirement is insufficient.  It is equivalent to standing by while the wrongdoing continues.

There is a lesson from the Penn State scandal for administrators, executives, and others in positions of responsibility who face similar situations.  Looking the other way or passing the buck are not acceptable options.  The human drive for justice and the righting of wrongs is ultimately more powerful than the money, prestige or influence of any institution or the bonds of longtime personal allegiances.

 

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