Penn State: Why doing right thing isn't as easy as it seems

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At least three people knew of a report that a child had been sexually assaulted in the Penn State University football team showers by a well-known, respected and popular former coach of the Nittany Lions in the days after a 2000 incident.

And two years later, no fewer than six people were told of an eyewitness account of a sexual assault involving another child by the same man in the same place, according to court documents.

Still, not one of them -- from a janitor to a graduate assistant to a university president -- went to the police to report what they knew.

From the public perspective over the past week, this apparent moral failing is nothing short of abhorrent. Most people agree there was an obligation to report the abuse of children and that many people, when faced with the same decision, would have made a different, or "right," choice.

But experts say it can't be summed up quite so easily.

Instead, the behavior of those men can be explained, at least in part, by psychological factors or a lack of ethical training at the university level, according to some experts.

"Anyone who thinks that they could not possibly get caught up in this [type of] situation is fooling themselves," said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "It's incredibly simplistic to look at this situation and say, 'Penn State is rife with evil and corruption.'

"I don't think the distinction is so clear-cut."

What likely happened, Mr. Loewenstein said, was "a perfect storm for disaster.

"It's all about how even the most ethical, morally upright people -- if they get into a bad situation -- will take actions that violate their own ethical principles," Mr. Loewenstein said.

The allegations last week were startling: that university president Graham Spanier, a sociologist and family therapist, and Joe Paterno, long the face and heart of Penn State football, failed in their duty to act on reports of child sex abuse.

Also implicated were then-athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, former senior vice president for finance and business, who were charged with failing to report the incident and lying about it in their grand jury testimony.

It is almost impossible to say exactly why the officials acted as they did. Was it allegiance to a friend, Jerry Sandusky, the longtime defensive coordinator now charged with sexually abusing eight boys? Or was it allegiance to Penn State football, or to the university as an institution?

Simon Keller, a philosophy professor who taught at Boston University and now teaches in New Zealand, said often loyalty can create its own "moral universe."

When that happens, Mr. Keller said, the relationship and the duties to the people inside that universe become the only things that matter.

"They had a temptation to ask first, 'What does this mean for my friend? What does it mean for my university and our football program?' " Mr. Keller said. "And it is easy to see why, when those are the first questions asked, it could seem, from the perspective of the moral universe created by those loyal relationships, that the right thing to do was to keep the allegations secret."

But, Mr. Keller continued, a basic ideal of moral virtue is the ability to take a wider perspective -- to feel sympathy.

"In this case, it is absolutely obvious that the wider moral obligation to protect real, vulnerable humans was far more important than any obligation of friendship or any obligation to an ethereal entity like 'the university' or 'the program,' " Mr. Keller said. "The Penn State officials all appear to be educated, connected, well-paid individuals. They must have known what they were doing. They were not placed in any genuine moral dilemma, just in a position in which doing the right thing required a small amount of moral courage."

Mr. Loewenstein said what likely was at play in the failure to report the alleged acts was a psychological phenomenon known as "diffusion of responsibility."

"There were a lot of people around who seemed to be aware of what was going on and thought it was someone else's responsibility to do something," he said.

The individuals kept following the hierarchy of the administration until the information -- likely skewed and watered down by that point -- got to the top, he said.

"By the time it got upstairs, it was probably so muddied and so distorted that they didn't understand the seriousness," Mr. Loewenstein said.

Mr. Spanier denied in his testimony to the grand jury that the incident was reported to him as something "sexual in nature," according to the presentment made public Nov. 5 by the state attorney general's office.

But more than that, when initially confronted with the information that a longtime colleague and friend was being accused of abuse, there's a good chance, experts say, that the administrators didn't want to -- or couldn't -- believe it.

"The human brain is remarkably adept at believing what it wants to believe," Mr. Loewenstein said. "When there's something we don't want to believe, we process information much differently."

Mr. Schultz characterized the report he received as "not that serious," according to the grand jury presentment.

Mr. Spanier testified that Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz told him in 2002 of an incident by Mr. Sandusky that made a member of Mr. Curley's staff "uncomfortable," according to the grand jury's report.

And in his testimony denying that the incident was reported to him as "sexual in nature," Mr. Spanier described it as "Jerry Sandusky in the football building locker area in the shower ... with a younger child and that they were horsing around in the shower," the grand jury stated.

Still, wouldn't the prospect of a grown man in the shower with a young boy prompt some review?

Not necessarily.

The refusal to believe such charges can be a completely automatic, unconscious, involuntary process, Mr. Loewenstein said.

"People are going to be powerfully motivated to not believe this colleague is abusing young boys," Mr. Loewenstein said. "The last thing people want to do is discover that this widely beloved, respected person is evil and corrupt."

He went a step further.

"I think very few people involved in this story were consciously aware they were doing the wrong thing. They felt they had dispensed with their obligation by passing the information along," Mr. Loewenstein said.

The administrators who failed to go to the police are not evil, he continued.

"They were caught up in a situation that brought out the worst in them," Mr. Loewenstein said. "Everyone has good and bad."

Penn State officials didn't seem to see the seriousness with which those outside the university viewed the matter in the early days after the news broke.

Mr. Spanier issued a statement Nov. 5 saying that Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz had his unconditional support.

"I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years," Mr. Spanier said in the statement. "I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee. Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately."

Sometimes it takes perspectives of others to make a person realize it was the wrong choice, experts say. People may recognize that they didn't do what they should have, but often it's too late, Mr. Loewenstein said.

The Rev. James F. Keenan, a theology professor at Boston College, does not see the failure by Penn State officials to inform police about the reported crimes as a societal moral failing.

"I think average people are doing fine," he said. But, he continued, teaching institutions are not.

"There's no ethical accountability built into the training of someone who goes into administration or teaching," he said. Father Keenan compared the current Penn State situation with the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church.

Both university officials and church officials typically are not required to undergo ethics training that would give them preparation to deal with conflicting allegiances and moral dilemmas involved in their work, he said.

In both instances, he wondered, "Why didn't the basic human question -- 'This is wrong. This is reportable' -- why weren't those words spoken? Why weren't they acted on?"

The decision by the Penn State board of trustees to fire Mr. Paterno and ask Mr. Spanier to resign sent a good message, Father Keenan said.

"Here, we're seeing a greater level of accountability -- the people in charge [are leaving]," he said.

That did not happen in the church, Father Keenan said. The priests who were accused may have been removed, but it was rare that anyone higher up was affected, he said.

"There's just something about these institutions. They're in another world."

Although Father Keenan acknowledged that fidelity may have been at play among the people who chose not to go to the police, he said it should not have been.

Fidelity applies to long-term, intimate relationships like to a spouse or sibling or parent, he continued, even a professional, doctor-patient relationship.

"I don't see any of that here. I don't see anything that could compromise calling the police [to say] that children are being raped," Father Keenan said. "They all have the responsibility to protect these children."

Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620.


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