Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Falling 24 miles

The difference is that Graham Spanier is doing it without a parachute. The president of Penn State University for 16 years, pulling down more than half a million a year in salary, traveling in the most rarefied of elite circles, and now he faces charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and endangering the welfare of children. Whatever the outcome of the criminal case, Spanier's reputation in his own field -- family sociology and therapy -- is forever ruined. How could he possibly not have understood the likely implications of the reports he got -- on two occasions years apart -- about behavior by Jerry Sandusky that obviously, even to a layperson, raised very disturbing probabilities?

Well, the answer is, he did understand, and it seems to me quite evident from the smoking gun e-mail in which he approves a decision not to report the allegations against Sandusky to the authorities, but only to raise them with the executive director of Sandusky's charity, the Second Mile, and let him follow up.

The only downside for us is if the message isn't `heard' and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it. The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed.

Penn State is a "mandated reporter," legally required to bring credible suspicions of child abuse to the attention of authorities.

The Catholic Church, PSU, the Boy Scouts, and now the BBC with the Jimmy Savile scandal -- all of these stories are eerily parallel. The Catholic Church's history of covering up child abuse was no surprise. It was pretty much common knowledge my entire life. People told jokes about it long before the Boston Globe's expose. I personally knew a guy who was viciously abused by monks at a Catholic boarding school, and another who grew up in a Catholic orphanage and, while he was not victimized himself, knew all about what was happening to other kids.

But having the same sort of tale emerge about one powerful institution after another is, I confess, a revelation to me. It seems more the norm than the exception for people in charge of organizations that are built on image and reputation to instinctively respond to this particular crime by ignoring the victims and protecting the perpetrators.

I'm still trying to parse out exactly what this tells us about the culture. Of course the people responsible are all men, and that includes the BBC which seems to have a very male dominated power structure. I can't prove that women in charge would have acted differently. So far we don't have any evidence about that, but I think most people will consider it a factor. However, it is certainly not my instinct, as a male heterosexual, to protect men who rape children. And I would like to think that my instinct as an organizational leader would be to put the organization's virtue ahead of its reputation . And even if I were entirely cynical, I hope I would be sensible enough to realize that the damage to reputation would be far worse if I got caught out  after the cover up.

So I do find this puzzling. Raping children is, to most people, the most revolting of crimes. Yet it seems also to be the one crime that powerful men are least inclined to do anything about, if it might inconvenience the institutions that give them their power. I mean, if these people were stealing from the parishioners, scouts, Second Mile participants or kiddie show audience members, I'm pretty sure there would not have been a cover up. What gives?

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