A Festering Ethics Infection

The Report of the Special Investigative Counsel Regarding the Actions of The Pennsylvania State University Related to the Child Sexual Abuse Committed by Gerald A. Sandusky, referred to as the Freeh Report (Report), was issued last week and it is a scathing commentary on how reports of abuse were handled at that institution. The findings of the Freeh commission available in the Report highlight not simply Gerry Sandusky, the convicted molester, as a known threat to numerous young boys over many years, but to the culture and mindset at the highest level of University administrators who knew of Sandusky’s sexual attacks both on University property and at University sponsored outings.  Students and employees at the University and at least one mother of an abused boy knew of Sandusky’s perverted behaviors and several reported him to University officials.

According to the Report those University officials, who are themselves currently under investigation by legal authorities and will likely stand trial, turned a blind eye to these reports in an attempt to preserve an ethos of sports and its related income to the University all at the expense of the boys who were being abused.  Sandusky’s bosses only suggestion to him when they received the reports of his aberrant behavior seems to be that he seek some help. They did not report him to off campus police and they did not bar him from all University programs.  These administrators including the University President, Senior Vice-President, Athletic Director and Head Football Coach also kept the information from the Trustees of the University and like an unchecked virus let him spread his harm to more boys.

Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts related to abuse. If all the young boys he molested over the years came forward to testify against him there would have likely been many more counts. Time will tell what the other University officials legal outcomes will be though it is not a long shot to believe that they too will be found guilty as well. When the Board of Trustees finally received information about Sandusky, they fired the University president, forced the football Coach Joe Paterno to resign, and commissioned the Freeh Report. Unfortunately, the Board may also be culpable as there were no formal policies or procedures established at the University to follow the federally mandated Clery Act, which requires all Universities and Colleges receiving any federal assistance to collect information, follow, and report crimes on University campuses.

Years ago the Roman Catholic Church adopted an approach very similar to that of the Penn State administrators. Priests that were known to be molesters were sent to rehabilitation programs, transferred to other parishes or not even acknowledged as having and being a problem.  Reports to investigative and legal professionals outside of the Church were not made all in an attempt to protect the culture of the Church. The Church is also starting to pay the price for its inaction.

Recent reports of institutions with a level of visibility lower than the Catholic Church or Penn State indicate that they too have administrators who chose the route of institutional protectiveness over caring and protecting those who are served by the organization. Witness the cases in Brooklyn, New York reported first by Hella Winston in The Jewish Week and The Forward followed by an expose in the New York Times. Similar situations are also being reported among a variety of different sects in Israel. Rationalizations for organizational inaction are often couched in unjustified religious, social or cultural excuses. It is improper to inform on others or speak ill of others, religious leaders are viewed as infallible, we have to protect ourselves from a menacing society are among the excuses most frequently given.

In addition to the legal actions taken against sexual predators and those who turn a blind eye to them there are civil means of recourse. In Penn State it seems clear that those who were abused by Sandusky will come to some financial settlement with the University. There is also some talk of removing Head Coach, Joe Paterno’s, statue or even preventing the football team from playing for a year. The Catholic Church in several countries is dealing with legal issues and may have to pay out millions in civil suits as well. The Brooklyn District Attorney has vowed to prosecute sexual predators and those that attempt to silence their victims. At some point the defense funds of these organizations will be tapped to settle claims. Legal and civil proceedings to deal with abusers and compensate victims are important but what has all this taught us about our institutions their leadership and the diseased excuses they use?

Organizations are often operated primarily within a cost to benefit ratio business model. It would seem that in many situations, even in religious settings, the ethics of operations take a backseat or are not even considered.  While they may not always do so, health care professionals are bound by the requirements of their licenses to behave in an ethical manner. There are ethical guidelines they are taught and tested in and if they do not abide by them they may very well lose their ability to practice professionally. Some business professionals take an oath to act in the greater good but they are not taught what that means in terms of their professional behavior and how it effects running an organization. In order to eradicate this virulence we must find a way to train business and institutional leaders to take the time to understand what the greater good means and the actions necessary to protect and care for the vulnerable that they serve. Oaths are just words. 



About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee. He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."