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Loyalty, Lies and Pedophilia: Best Lessons from Penn State

November 14, 2011

Like many of us, I’ve spent the past week devouring the unfolding child molestation scandal involving Penn State. I’ve also culled what I consider the best ideas and lessons we might draw from this sordid affair that has indicted Sandusky on felony charges, and led to the firing of Joe Paterno, as well as Penn State’s President, and other university administrators. While court proceedings may eventually answer the  legal (rather than moral) issues of Guilt vs. Innocence  it’s up to you and me to learn from this Category 5 moral disaster.

WHY?  Why did apparently good men collude in covering up and inadequately reporting accounts of Sandusky’s molestations?  There’s Loyalty and then diffusion of responsibility.

LOYALTY: If the initial twitter count is correct, 50% of initial tweets thought the Trustees had done the right thing by firing Paterno & others. That leaves about 50% of the culture showing institutional loyalty over the moral care for dreadfully abused children.  Loyalty isn’t always a good thing–it can be misplaced in institutions, as well as in family life.  But loyalty, like justice,  is a primary motivator for behavior.  Misplaced loyalty likely played a part in the complicity of those who had been longterm colleagues of Sandusky.

LESSON: Evaluate what loyalty you owe and to whom. Evaluate your first gut response. Don’t trust it too much. Too often that instinctive first response leads us to believe we’re in the right (and the other side is wrong). This is how wars as well as culture wars start, and how moral outrages are minimized and rationalized.

DIFFUSION OF RESPONSIBILITY is the pass the “hot potato” feeling that you’ve done your job by reporting it to your superior. If more people know, you’re  less likely to feel responsible. It’s the “someone else will take care of it” rationalization.

LESSON: Institutions are not good at policing themselves. In the same decade  that the Penn State scandal was occurring, the Catholic Church was in the news weekly with ever new accounts of pedophilia by priests.Background checks are necessary but not sufficient. After all, pedophiles often prey on the most vulnerable who are reluctant to (or cannot report). Each of us should consider ourselves mandated reporters. As a psychologist and marriage and family therapist, I am a reporter by training, ethics and law. But you could be too. Pick up the phone to Child Protective Services if you suspect or get a report of a child being sexually abused.  Every institution, by law,  should have its own administrators trained in these laws and ethics. Until then, consider yourself a mandated reporter.

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