Tragic Lessons of the Penn State Fiasco

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.

Former Penn State Coach Joe Paterno

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.”

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26 Responses to “Tragic Lessons of the Penn State Fiasco”

  1. Michael, I couldn’t agree more with your perspective on the Penn State situation. As you say, it is both tragic and horrific. Sadly, however, although this is a high profile case, it is far from an isolated instance of egregious immoral or unethical behavior in the nonprofit community being swept under the rug and/or covered up.

    We had better get serious about policing ourselves or we will soon find ourselves either regulated to death or see most of our gift revenue dry up. This, in my opinion, is a greater crisis than the temporary economic hardships we currently face.

    • Jeff, thank you for your comment. Nonprofit organizations must operate with the highest ethical standards. Nonprofits are completely dependent on the public trust. Sadly, when one organization behaves poorly, it negatively impacts the entire sector. That’s why we need to make sure our own organizations behave ethically AND we need to encourage others to do so as well.

  2. Michael, the idea that students — young people that are supposed to be more reactive to morality, ethics and justice — are the ones who protested against Paterno’s dismissal is the saddest news in this horrific story. They are not protesting about administrators and coach protecting the structure and condemning children to be abused but because a “star” a “legend” of football is not their coach anymore….

    This is, along with the poor victims, the horrific news: those students have no sense of justice, ethics or morals. Who are their parents? What did they teach to their children? That a coach is more important than a child sexually abused? Only becasue it is not their child? This is unbelievable. It’s also very sad news for me to hear because I am not an American citizen.

    • Michela, thank you for sharing your heartfelt comments. While I am alarmed by the behavior of the Penn State students that protested the dismissal of Coach Paterno, I do need to mention that it was not all Penn State students. This Saturday, Penn State will play its last home game of the season. News reports say students are planning to wear blue clothing, rather than the customary white, to demonstrate their solidarity with the alledged victims. If true, it is reassuring to know that many in the Penn State community have their hearts in the right place.

  3. Well said, Michael. Sadly, the story could get even worse if the new rumors are true about Sandusky. Sick and outrageous.

  4. Michael, I echo the thoughts of the other commenters. Excellent post.
    It’s sad and unfortunate that any of us need to even discuss the importance of speaking up, taking action, and self-regulating. When did the abuse of a child ever become a matter of debate?
    I think all nonprofit organizations, but especially those that work with young children, are susceptible to predation by sick individuals. No matter what steps an organization might take to protect its members… a predator will do everything in their power to exploit the vulnerable.
    I hope that if any positives have come out of this situation, it is that other organizations will now recognize how detrimental a cover up can be for the well-being of the abused, and for the long-term reputation of the organization.

    • John, thank you for your comments. I hope that you are right and that people are learning from this tragic story. And, I hope that by shining a giant spotlight on the issue of the sexual abuse of children, an issue that is far too common and yet talked about far too little, others will be helped.

  5. Michael – as always, making solid observations and telling the truth about what you see. Being a mother of 5 as well as a development professional at a major university, your thoughts echo mine entirely. Thank you for reminding us all to love and protect G-d’s children.

    • Laura, thank you so much for your supportive comment. However, your comment actually made me chuckle. You thanked me for “telling the truth about what [I] see.” I’ve got to tell you that, over the years, that nasty habit of mine has ticked off a lot of people. On the other hand, it’s also allowed me to make many friends like you. I’ll always prefer to hangout with the truth seekers!

  6. Michael, the students did protest the university’s cover-up, and on the Monday after the announcement, they began planning a vigil for the victims, which was held on Friday evening. More than twice as many students and community members showed up for that event. Penn State students and alumni have also raised almost $300,000 for RAINN in less than one week. Unfortunately, many in the media, including you, have ignored those other parts of the story. While the University failed tremendously in this, the rest of the story needs to be told, too, because that’s where the solutions will come.

    • Dennis, thank you for your comment and for shedding additional light on the subject. Despite your accusation, I just need to point out that I have not been ignoring other parts of the story. This is not a news site. I am a commentator about events that impact nonprofit organizations and causes about which I care deeply. From time to time, I will update my original post. My intention was and is to update the post with information about the Friday night vigil and today’s football game in one update message which I will do before the end of the weekend. While it is nice to see the Penn State community coming together in support of the victims of child sex abuse, this in no way excuses the behavior of the students earlier in the week who took to the streets in a riot to protest the dismissal of Coach Paterno. I also want to point out that my blog site does not have reporters on the ground at Penn State. Like most in the nation, I’m dependent upon the coverage from the media that are present at Penn State. But, you would think that a major university with one of the largest or the largest communications program in the country could do a better job of getting its message out. The fact that Penn State has done such a terrible job on the public relations front is certainly part of the story and one of the points I made in my original post.

      • My comments are also not to be seen as an excuse or support for the less than 10% of Penn State students who took to the streets that night. I also agree that Penn State has not handled this situation well at all.

        But, this is also a story about how the media decide what to present and how we as a society decide what to read, watch and listen.

        I encourage you to go to statecollege.com and read Russell Frank’s article where he tells of students who saw the media try to incite the riot. I encourage you to visit onwardstate.com where you will see a wide span of student views on what has happened. I encourage you to explore the articles by Joe Posnanski, Michale Weinreb, and others who write about different aspects of this story.

        In these days of blogs and Twitter, there is NO need to be dependent solely on the corporate for-profit media for information. If you put the effort into seeking out other sources, you will have a fairer, more accurate, more complete understanding of the truth.

      • Dennis, thank you for your additional comments and for sharing your suggestions for additional news sources on the subject. I did take the time to visit the sites you suggested, and I hope others will do so as well. I’ve embedded links into your comment to make it easier for readers to access the websites you referenced.

        As I inidicated in my original post, this is indeed a multi-faceted story that is made all the more complex by the daily evolution of events. As a former newspaper editor, I am very interested in the media coverage of events at Penn State. However, neither my blog site nor my blog post are meant to critique the media’s coverage of events. Instead, I focus on the organization(s) dealing with a particular event. So, while I understand your frustration with the media coverage, I’m more concerned about the alleged rape of child on campus by a former Penn State coach, the alleged cover up by university officials, and the sloppy way in which the Penn State leadership is dealing with the crisis. I know that you are not minimizing the importance of these events. I’m just underscoring where my focus is.

  7. Michael, you make an excellent point that the university had two years to prepare for this report and they still botched it. I would add that Joe Paterno surpassed the record for “winningest coach” only a week before the report came out, which makes me wonder if it was delayed in order for Paterno to get the title for most wins.

    You might want to check your details on when the Second Mile charity removed Sandusky from contact with children. News reports seem to indicate that it didn’t happen until 2008, not 1998 when the first known incident was investigated and the DA decided not to prosecute. See http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2011-11-13/second-mile-sandusky-abuse/51189754/1. It’s precisely because Sandusky still had contact with children after 1998 through the charity that he was able to victimize more children.

    One other item for nonprofits to note: the legal counsel for Second Mile was also counsel to Penn State. I think this conflict of interest could have been avoided by the organization.

    There are a lot of lessons here for nonprofits.

    Good article, Michael, thanks for writing it, it’s very thought-provoking.

    • Katerine, thank you for taking the time to comment and for catching my error. You’re quite correct; it was not until 2008 that Second Mile barred Sandusky from programs involving children. And, thank you for pointing out the conflict of interest situation regarding the Penn State/Second Mile attorney. This story just keeps getting more and more interesting. I suspect the new revelations will keep coming as the investigation continues.

  8. I’m still saying OY VEY over all of this, what on earth?

    Those boys who-allegedly-were tortured after so many adults knew about it. Including the people at Second Mile–those people cared more about “touching greatness” than about the children they profess to help and protect. They should have fired Raykovitz–for what he/they knew/allowed. The entire board should be replaced as well if even a single one of them knew what Raykovitz knew….that there was even a smell of impropriety going on with “their” children.

    Honestly, I’m having trouble controlling my rage over this. I appreciate your keeping it about the children and our moral responsibility. I’ve spoken with our 17 and 21 year old daughters about “what would you have done/what would you do”–neither of them wanted to have the conversation, but too bad.

    I will say that I have given careful thought to what it must be like to hear this kind of info about one’s dear friend/coworker or whatever. Even if you can’t handle a personal confrontation, if you can’t (understandably) believe this person would EVER engage in this behavior, you still have to do everything in your power to make sure someone else proves it false beyond a shadow of a doubt, no?

    I have been in fundraising for 26 years and so appreciate, of course, your professional perspective, but as you say–those issues pale in comparison to what happened-allegedly to those children. I’m not being facitious about the use of the word “alleged”–if he’s proven not-guilty then fine. The benefit to his ruined life will be at least the heightened awareness about the silent disease of child sexual/abuse.

    Thanks for listening to a fellow truth-seeker…sorry to go off like that, usually I’m hideously professional and politic in this kind of public forum because it’s all about networking for me. But, this is just too important….I care more about these words than what people might think about me professionally. IT’S ABOUT THE CHILDREN.

    • Susan, thank you for sharing your thoughts and for being so passionate about an important issue. Child sexual abuse, by itself is a difficult subject. However, the added layers of complexity in the Penn State/Second Mile situation make it all a bit mind numbing. One of the best things we can all do is keep the conversation alive. Your daughters might have been uncomfortable with the discussion, but you did the right thing in having it. Child sexual abuse is a crime that requires silence and secrecy. By shining a bright spotlight on the issue, we make it more difficult for pedophiles to win.

  9. This is an absolutely disgusting case. No room on the planet for these type of people.

    • Schuhmann, thank you for writing in. There’s no doubt about it. Child sexual abuse is disgusting, and anyone who protects the abusers is just as disgusting as the perpetrator. Sadly, the allegations involving Penn State are not unique. What is unusual is the high-level of media attention that child sex abuse is now getting as a result of the scandal. Perhaps that will help lead to a measure of prevention. Let’s hope.

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