Former FBI Director Louis Freeh has now issued his final report on the scandal at Penn State University, but the question remains: How could so many decent people fail to act when presented with an eyewitness account of sexual abuse of a child?
Jerry Sandusky, assistant coach at Penn State for 32 years, was convicted in June of 45 counts of child sex abuse. For at least 15 years, Sandusky used his position at Penn State to prey on victims, setting up a charitable foundation that recruited at-risk boys, many of whom he would abuse on campus and on team road trips as well as at his home.
But Sandusky's colleagues and supervisors turned a blind eye to what should have been suspicious behavior. Worse, they did nothing to try to protect the actual victims when a then-graduate assistant in the program, Mike McQueary, told them he'd seen Sandusky abusing a child in a campus locker room. In the Freeh report's words, university officials demonstrated "total disregard for the safety and welfare of the victims."
The report attributed this indifference to a desire "to avoid the consequences of bad publicity" on the part of the most powerful officials at Penn State. Even the college's beloved head coach, Joe Paterno, came in for scathing criticism. Paterno, who was fired soon after the accusations against Sandusky became public and who died of cancer in January, learned of Sandusky's behavior from McQueary. But the Freeh report noted that Paterno initially delayed passing on what McQuery told him because he didn't "want to interfere" with anyone's weekend plans.
It would be simple to lay the blame for what occurred on the culture of college football, where winning means everything, not just to the team and its players but to the schools as well. But the Penn State scandal is no different than similar scandals involving sexual abuse of children by authority figures in institutions as wide-ranging as the Catholic Church, state mental hospitals, youth detention centers, and the Boy Scouts. And in many of these cases, the guilty parties are not only the perpetrators but those who looked away or, worse, tried to cover up what they knew was happening.
The pattern seems to be more the rule than the exception. Confronted with evidence that a colleague, employee, or supervisor is abusing vulnerable children, too many people fail to intervene.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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