The acts documented and alleged in the indictment against Jerry Sandusky are very disturbing to any reasonable person, especially to a parent. I don’t presume to have any professional insights into them. The behavior of Penn State officials, including Joe Paterno, whether regarding legal or moral obligations, is also disturbing. On one level, it is incredibly puzzling how seemingly responsible people could cover up and enable these actions for more than a decade. On the other hand, I have observed cover-ups (of lesser problems and lesser public attention) in many other circumstances involving individuals in positions of responsibility. Two general factors repeatedly stand out as influences:
1. Close Personal Connections: longstanding personal or familial ties generate loyalty, sometimes far too much from an external observer’s viewpoint. You don’t “snitch” on some one within a close fraternal circle. Such “no snitch” codes have existed in mafia circles but also within police circles and other tightly knit groups. In many cases, the fraternal link trumps concern for victims in spite of the severity of acts (murder, abuse, …) . To anyone outside the circle, who doesn’t share the personal link and loyalty, the lack of concern for the victims and protection of the perpetrator is unconscionable. Consider this case. If an assault occurred in the Penn State locker room but the perpetrator anonymous to these Penn State officials, would there have been even a moment’s hesitation in bringing in law enforcement officials?
2. Embarrassment/Fear: what are the consequences of exposing this person? Will it have negative reflections or ramifications on me? Will it negatively reflect on the organization? These concerns can lead to an adverse selection as to what gets exposed — the worse the offense (at least to a point), the less likely to be exposed. When I came to WKU 25+ years ago, my colleagues would joke, “if you are going to mess up, do so in a big way. Small violations may get you censured or fired, but big transgressions will be kept quiet and “punished” with a sabbatical.” Obviously, it doesn’t always work this way, but I have observed this upside down outcome several times. This is also where Skip’s analysis ties in with mine. The bigger the reputation or status of the people involved, the larger the negative reflection on the organization and the stronger the influence to hush things up.
Ironically, watching a “48 Hours” repeat on Tuesday as I rode my stationary bike and thought about the Penn State case, these same kinds of influences worked out in the investigation of homicides in a housing project — personal loyalties, fear, reputations, all contributed to an unwillingness of a neighborhood’s residents to expose a murderer, even one who killed two parents in front of their small children. Yet, I think society(rightly) tends to be more forgiving of lack of action by those fearing for their lives than those fearing for their own or their organization’s reputation in covering up criminal acts.
Also, society seems to readily accept the reluctance of family or close personal friends to report misdeeds, much less become the primary accuser. However, here, again, a threshold exists. Few would expect a person to report a friend or family member for small violations of ethical standards — say, making private copies on the company copier. When the unethical activity ratchets to a higher level — say, misappropriating a sizable amount of funds — the protection of the activity becomes more questionable. When the behavior involves heinous acts like murder or sexual abuse, a threshold is crossed where those outside the circle of friends don’t pass off the responsibility of friends and family.