The outrage over the Penn State child sex abuse scandal is well-founded. There is a lesson to be learned beyond merely castigating the actors in the web of cover-ups, and that lesson is that institutions, even those as well established as Penn State, exist within a framework of laws. Those laws must be respected and deferred to, even when infractions damage the institution’s reputation.
That assertion may seem so obvious as to not warrant saying, but history proves otherwise.
So entrenched in the Penn State sports hierarchy was Jerry Sandusky, the man accused of abusing young boys, that the biggest consequence he faced was being shunned from the football program’s inner circle. Instead of moving Sandusky out of the senior coach position, Penn State officials should have called the police when confronted with evidence that he was a sexual predator (a charge Sandusky is denying).
Even the whistle-blower in this case, who some say acted honorably, apparently failed to summon law enforcement when he should have. A 28-year-old graduate assistant said nine years ago that he witnessed Sandusky having sex with a 10-year-old boy in the university locker room showers.
The young man, now a receivers coach for the program, went to Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s house to report what he saw. Weeks later, Paterno and the university administrator overseeing campus police told the graduate assistant that Sandusky was banned from bringing boys on campus, intimating that the matter was closed.
How does a reputable institution go so wrong? The problem lies with the world-within-a-world nature of a large university in a small community. Pennsylvania State University’s host town is named State College, which gives an idea of which entity eclipsed which. So when a university staff member is observed allegedly breaking the law, especially when it’s an infraction that will embarrass the university, the impulse is to “handle the matter internally,” as the cliche goes.
And it’s not just large universities that fall victim to this failing. Over the last 25 years in Maine, there have been incidents in which school districts have consulted with parents and doled out the punishment they feel is appropriate when students steal, bring weapons to school, threaten teachers or other students or are caught with illegal substances.
And going back a few decades, school districts often quietly dismissed staff accused of sexual offenses.
In a surprising number of cases, it seems to not occur to administrators to call the police first and then administer their own response to the infraction later.
The growing troubles for Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain also have an institutional context. Four of the women who have accused him of sexual harassment worked, at one time, for the National Restaurant Association for which Cain also worked.
One of the accusers has said Cain groped her after she had left her job at the association. That incident, if it occurred as the woman claimed, rises to the level of sexual assault, not merely harassment.
While sexual harassment is not illegal if it does not include unwanted touching or threats of violence, the association “dealt with the matters internally,” to again cite the stock cliche.
Working for an institution, whether it is a business advocacy organization such as the National Restaurant Association or a prestigious university with an iconoclastic sports program, imbues a high-ranking employee with stature and status. When someone in this position abuses his authority, the institution’s best move is to contact law enforcement officials, remove the accused from the workplace and investigate. Too often, that first step is forgotten.