Tuesday, November 8, 2011

When the chain of command fails

The sports world has been abuzz at the shocking story of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was recently indicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse.  Much attention has been focused on an incident nearly a decade ago when a graduate assistant with the PSU football program, investigating a noise in a locker room, discovered Sandusky (then no longer employed by the university, but running a football camp for kids on campus) in the showers sodomizing a young boy.  The assistant told coach Joe Paterno, who told campus higher ups--who responded by shutting down Sandusky's camp.

But nobody, apparently, bothered to call the cops.

In many institutions, one is taught to recognize--and respect--the chain-of-command.  You see something wrong, you tell your boss.  Or call one of those HR hotlines that promises anonymity.  But going outside the chain--outside the institution--is often seen as disloyalty, and discouraged.

But here's the problem.  We're not talking about a violation of team rules, or NCAA regulations, or university policy here.  (Or even a minor infraction of the law such as an underage football player in a bar sloshed out of his gourd).  A child was being raped.  This is not a matter for the head coach, or the athletic director, or the deans and provosts and regents to deal with.  This is a crime, and a matter for law enforcement.  I have a son who is the same age as the victim in the rape mentioned above, so this story has a somewhat personal angle, even though it's across the country.

I'm not going to pronounce judgment on Paterno in this post, even though I believe he probably has some coming his way.  Instead, it's important to make a broader point.  Institutions--whether its the Roman Catholic Church, the Penn State football program, the National Restaurant Association, or any number of corporations whose employees and officers have been caught engaging in wrongdoing--like to protect themselves.  People trust and believe in their friends.  And when given a choice between sweeping something under the rug, and doing the right thing; many will choose the former.  Institutions often create rules and policies which effectively encourage this.

For matters which are truly internal, this is fine.  But for things that are the business of society--and protecting children from molesters is certainly in this category, the chain of command often fails.

When a violent crime occurs, even within the confines of an institution's ivy-covered walls, the correct--and only--response is not to tell the boss. 

It's to call the police.

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