It's hard to read the grand jury's report in the Penn State case and not wince. Every page is a nauseating excursion into a world that seems so far from reality that it can't possibly exist But it does exist. And at the end of the indictment one's dominant emotion is anger, anger with the perpetrator, anger with those who witnessed illegal and immoral acts but did nothing, anger at a system that operates unfettered by rules of responsible behavior. Sounds exactly like organized crime.
When the story first became news, many people were astonished that the university would, with such speed, fire its president, Graham Spanier, the athletic director, Tim Curley, and---with a bit less alacrity---the icon Joe Paterno. But as the grand jury report shows, Penn State officials were told about the child molestation nearly ten years ago, and so the remediation was not pre-emptory or rapid---it was long, long overdue.
A key witness for the grand jury was Mike McQueary, an assistant football coach, who stated under oath that he had seen Sandusky in an act of intercourse with a young boy, and it is beyond belief that he did nothing to stop it. While there can be many reasons for his slinking away as if the assault were not happening, there can be no excuse, and McQueary is a coward. So are the Penn State campus police, local law enforcement officials and everyone else who knew of or suspected Sandusky's revolting behavior and did nothing or, worse, were involved in hiding the truth. And that includes Joe Paterno.
With all authority comes a commensurate responsibility. The two are inseparable. To give authority without insuring that leaders are responsible for their actions is the height of stupidity, and big trouble is guaranteed to be the eventual result. At the point of decision, humans almost always respond by thinking of the effect on themselves and on their organizations, but this is not necessarily unhealthy. It is the engine of progress, of democracy and, when we are mindful of others in our group, of charity. It is the notion that drives battlefield valor, too.
But when it is the motivation to hide the truth, it becomes the force that strengthens evil and creates an environment that nurtures horrendous behavior. The officials in the Penn State case closed ranks because the organization became more important than any moral imperative. At Penn State, as at many institutions, big-time college sports generate enormous sums of money. Some officials rationalize permitting athletic programs to become strong, semi-independent, unsupervised entities by asserting that they subsidize other, more educational and intellectual pursuits. But that conflates the reason and the excuse, and in the Penn State case the sacking of the chain-of-command, including the university's president, was the tardy but proper result of a decade or more of malfeasance.
At other institutions the leadership, including the trustees, can breathe a collective sigh of relief but should begin cleaning their own houses. And if the incoherent Occupy Wall Street crowd is looking to make a real difference, it should focus on the corrosiveness of criminal enterprise masquerading as higher education.