Penn State Redux

How in the world did Penn State allow assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to molest children—sometimes on its grounds—for 11 years without notifying authorities? That's the question the institution hired former FBI director Louis Freeh's consulting firm to investigate in-depth. This morning, Freeh's task force released its independent review—which is just as damning as you can imagine, saying that all the key people, Paterno included, "repeatedly concealed critical facts" to protect the institution rather than the victims. Here are the key findings from the executive summary:

Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University—President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno—failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky's activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities. They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky's victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being, especially by not attempting to determine the identity who Sandusky assaulted in the Lasch Building in 2001. Further, they exposed this child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky, who was the only one who knew the child's identity, of what McQueary saw in the shower on the night of February 9, 2001. 

These individuals, unchecked by the Board of Trustees that did not perform its oversight duties, empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access to the University's facilities and affiliation with the University's powerful football program. Indeed, that continued access provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims. 

Freeh's team rejects the reasons that these four principals (in person or via their lawyers or other agents) gave for not reporting Sandusky to the authorities. He concludes that they're justifying their actions retroactively (my characterization) and that:

... it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University—Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley—repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse.  

The report is 237 pages, and I've only looked at the press release and executive summary. But Freeh's conclusions are certainly consistent with all the previous reporting. 

Unfortunately, it's easy to understand how powerful men in charge of a powerful institution that they loved could be so steeped in their deep desire to protect that institution that they forgot about the powerless outside it. As I wrote here last fall, institutions are powerful things:

Sometimes, we can’t see what’s in front of our eyes if it’s at odds with what we believe about ourselves and our group. Nor, all too often, do we feel free to say it even if we can see it.

We need institutions and groups that we're affiliated with if we're going to survive, and the human mind has a tendency to absorb information consistent with our beliefs—and reject new information that doesn't fit our theories. Given our nature, it's easy to care so deeply about our own group that we forget about the outsiders who might be affected by its misbehavior. Unless we're vigilant and almost unbearably brave, our brains justify, reject, distort. That's why it's so exceptional if someone turns in his brother for murder, as happened years ago with the Unabomber, or if someone in a military unit fingers a fellow soldier for atrocities. That's why whistle-blowers are so often strange people, misfits who are hard to believe. That's why we believe in an abstract system of justice rather than clan vigilantes exacting revenge based on their own tribal version of the story. That's why we need journalism to stand permanently outside a variety of institutions and skeptically examine their claims about themselves. 

None of this excuses the Penn State administration for letting children be abused. They should be brought to justice in the coming months. It just reminds us all to step aside from ourselves now and then and question what we are willing to see. 

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