This is the most difficult blog post I’ve ever written.
The subject matter is truly horrific.
The story on which this post is based continues to change daily, literally. The story offers so much to comment on, that it’s difficult to know even what to focus on. Children have allegedly been sexually abused. Two nonprofit organizations will likely suffer. It’s a moral and public relations debacle that has led to rioting. It reveals grotesque failures of character. It is about a powerful institution that seems to have cared more about protecting itself than protecting children and, as a result, has eventually done itself great harm.
I’m writing about the child sex abuse scandal that has been exposed at Pennsylvania State University.
I’ve been following the story closely. I’m a Pennsylvanian and, therefore, I care about what happens at Penn State, our flagship public university. I’m also a member of the board of directors of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, an organization that brings justice and healing to the victims of child sexual abuse. Protecting the innocent and defenseless are core values of mine.
I learned of the story the way most people did. On November 5, 2011, Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly and State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan announced the results of a grand jury investigation. Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State Football Defensive Coordinator, was charged with sexually abusing eight boys. Tim Curley, Penn State Director of Athletics, and Gary Schultz, Penn State Senior Vice President for Finance and Business, were charged with perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse. Four days later, the Penn State Board of Trustees fired Graham Spanier, President, and Joe Paterno, the legendary football head coach.
Mike McQueary was a graduate assistant in 2002 when he allegedly witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a 10 year old boy in the showers of a locker room on campus. While McQueary did not stop the alleged rape, while he did not call police, he did notify Paterno … the next day. McQueary is now the wide receivers coach at Penn State though his position may be under review.
Why didn’t McQueary rescue the child? Why didn’t McQueary call 9-1-1? Why did he wait until the following day to tell Paterno, his superior? Where was McQueary’s moral compass?
After receiving the news, why didn’t Paterno call 9-1-1? Instead, he reported the information to Curley, his supervisor. While Paterno may have fulfilled Pennsylvania’s legal requirements, what about his moral obligations? Even the coach himself admitted, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” Rich Hofman, of The Philadelphia Daily News, has asked what Paterno’s legacy will now be: “Is it: ‘He did the legal minimum.’ Or is it: ‘He told his supervisor.’”
Bill Phillips and the editors of Men’s Health wrote an interesting article that explores the psychological issues involved and what may have affected the behavior of McQueary and Paterno. However, I still have to say that I would have expected better, especially of Paterno.
In our country, one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be sexually abused before adulthood. We must act when we have suspicions. In Pennsylvania, it’s the law. It’s not up to us to investigate. But, it is up to us to give the professionals the chance to investigate. If you suspect child sex abuse and do little or nothing about it, you are part of the evil. We have a profound moral obligation to protect the innocent and defenseless in our society. Please do your part. You can learn more about what you can do at the National Children’s Advocacy Center website, at the National Children’s Alliance website, or by contacting your local child advocacy center.
Edmund Burke stated, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Instead of taking decisive action upon reading the grand jury report, Penn State’s President offered a statement of “unconditional support” for the two university officials that were charged. When I heard that, I knew nothing good would come of it.
Even if Penn State officials had little regard for the victim, they should have done more to protect the university. An alleged cover-up was not the wise course of action. Defensiveness or mindless loyalty were not the best course of action.
Hugh Braithwaite, who teaches crisis communications at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and serves as President of Braithwaite Communications, said in a report on Philly.Com, “The general philosophy on crisis we use is to validate the concern. Not to admit guilt, but to validate the concern on the core of the issue, show action, and control the narrative.” He said that Spanier and the university “were defending against the concern, and they were not showing action. They were showing inaction until [Wednesday] and then not controlling the narrative.”
Is it any wonder that Spanier is suddenly no longer President of Penn State?
What’s particularly shocking, from the public relations perspective, is that Penn State was not entirely blind-sided by the grand jury report. The investigation of Sandusky over the 2002 alleged incident began in 2009. At some point, certainly by the time the university officials testified before the grand jury, Penn State knew of the investigation. The university had time to prepare for every possible outcome of the investigation. Penn State is home to what it claims is the country’s largest communications school. Couldn’t the university have better prepared for the public relations firestorm? Instead, communications experts attribute Penn State’s bungling of the public relations as one of the causes of the student riots resulting from the dismissal of Paterno.
I just have to point out that the students of Penn State could have taken to the streets to march in solidarity with Sandusky’s alleged victims. They did not. They could have protested against child sex abuse. They did not. They could have protested against the university’s alleged cover-up of child sex abuse. They did not. The students only took to the streets, violently, after the news broke that the coach had been fired. Interesting priorities.
The mess at Penn State will likely lead to civil lawsuits. Legal experts estimate the risk for the university could be in the tens of millions.
Undoubtedly, Penn State’s fundraising efforts will suffer. Some donors will be angered by the alleged cover-up. Some will be angered by the termination of the President. Some will be furious over the termination of Paterno, the winnningest coach in NCAA Division 1 football history. Some will be appalled at the violent behavior of students. Some will be angry with McQueary, who has allegedly received death threats. Some will be concerned about the continuing fall-out. Some will be worried about who the next President will be. Some will be angry that the university still has not changed its reporting protocols. This should be a busy time of year for the Penn State development office. I’m sure it is. Unfortunately now, life has gotten infinitely more challenging.
Unfortunately, too, Penn State is not the only nonprofit organization hit by the Sandusky scandal. In 1977, Sandusky started The Second Mile to help disadvantaged children. According to the grand jury report, however, Sandusky allegedly used the organization to identify children to victimize. The Second Mile did not allow Sandusky to participate in programs with children after 2008 when he made them aware that he was under investigation in another case. In 2010, Sandusky retired from The Second Mile. I would be very surprised if The Second Mile did not find fundraising to be much more difficult now, rightly or wrongly.
The defendants are entitled to a presumption of innocence. But, the grand jury report is damning. The Penn State scandal is a tragedy. Most disturbingly, it is a tragedy for the alleged child victims. These young boys were allegedly sexually abused by Sandusky and now the public is victimizing them again by pushing their stories to the background while focusing instead on Paterno and the university cast of characters. It is a tragedy for a great university whose reputation has been damaged, first by an alleged cover-up and then by mishandling the public relations. It is a tragedy for The Second Mile, an organization that has helped children with real needs but which will now be in the news for the wrong reasons.
We all have a responsibility to protect society’s children.
As those who work in the nonprofit sector, we have an obligation to earn the public’s trust every single day. We do this, not by covering up a crisis, but by managing challenges in the most ethical and moral way possible.
It’s still too early to know what all the fall-out will be. It’s a story worth watching. It’s a story with many lessons to be learned. Watch and learn. And act.
That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?
UPDATE (November 11, 2011): Chris Kirchner, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, has written an op-ed article in response to the Penn State situation. The article appeared in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer: “We All Have a Role in Stopping Abuse.”
UPDATE (November 13, 2011): This weekend, Penn State has taken a small step forward out of its current crisis. On Friday night, thousands of Penn State students, faculty members, staff, and town residents gathered for a peaceful candle-light vigil on campus to express their support for the victims of child sex abuse. On Saturday, the Penn State Nittnay Lions played their last home game of the season. Those who attended wore blue instead of customary white. Blue, while still a Penn State color, is also the color associated with the prevention of child abuse. Prior to kick-off, the Penn State team was joined at mid-field by the Nebraska team where they all kneeled for a long moment in a quiet stadium. It appears to have been an emotional weekend following a tumultuous week.
UPDATE (November 14, 2011): Jack Raykovitz, CEO of The Second Mile, has resigned. In addition, The Second Mile has hired Lynne Abraham, former Philadelphia District Attorney, to lead its internal investigation. You can read more here.
UPDATE: (November 29, 2011): On an almost daily basis, the story involving Jerry Sandusky grows more complex. However, I have refrained from frequent updates to this post as you can get news updates elsewhere. Nevertheless, I’m posting this update because I came across an interesting article about what the scandal says about governance at The Second Mile, the nonprofit organization established by Sandusky. The article is from the consulting firm of Sumption & Wyland and can be found here.
UPDATE: (December 7, 2010): Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State assistant football coach, has been arrested once again on charges of child sex abuse. The latest charges stem from the accusations of two new accusers. You can read the Associated Press report here.
UPDATE: (March 2, 2012): Glamour magazine has published an article that tells the story of the young reporter who first broke the Penn State story. You can read about her in “Meet the Woman Who Exposed Jerry Sandusky.”