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Asking the Right Questions
Lawrence M. Hinman
The decisive action taken by Penn State's Board of Trustees in firing coach Joe Paterno represents an important first step in dealing with the emerging sexual abuse scandal, but it should hardly be construed as more than that. The important and difficult issues still remain on the horizon, and it is crucial that we understand what the important questions are.
For many, the important issue is to punish—quickly and decisively, perhaps even harshly—as an indication of intolerance for such abuse. Some, whose watchfulness and concern about abuse was not previously in evidence, may be among the loudest voices in calling for retribution. Yet such calls can overshadow the more important issues.
Much depends on the questions we ask in situations such as this. The most narrow are questions about self-protection: in this case, the protection of Penn State and its reputation, or what is left of it. Others may ask questions about justice: what punishments should be meted out to the perpetrator and to those who were aware of the offenses being committed and failed to intervene in ways that put a stop to these terrible acts?
Yet other questions need to be asked as well, and in the long run these are the questions whose answers will have the widest impact. How are the individuals who were molested to heal after these events and, additionally, after the publicity that now surrounds their disclosure? Both the individuals who knew what was going on and the institution of Penn State as a whole have moral if not legal obligations to act in ways that are supportive of such healing. Indeed, this is the point at which the leadership of an institution is most severely tested. It is comparatively easy to fire someone, even a figure as well known as Coach Paterno, but it is much more difficult to discern a path that will allow the individuals and institutions involved to create some kind of goodness out of this evil, especially for those most deeply and directly harmed.
This will certainly be the most severe test of Coach Paterno's leadership. Even though he has been dismissed, he can still step forward and be a voice for greater responsibility as well as healing and reconciliation. Yet in order to do that, he must understand things about himself and his leadership in the past, about ways in which both he personally and his institution made this scandal possible. In other words, he has to look into his own soul and into his understanding of his mission in life and his decades-long career, seeing and articulating flaws and shortcomings that may have previously been either invisible or negligible to him. This is not a simple matter of a public “mea culpa” at a news conference, but rather a public examination and answering of the question, “how could I have let this happen?” His career may be ruined not simply by what he failed to do back then, but also by what he fails to do now.
So, too, with the administration of Penn State University and its Board of Trustees: they have to ask these tough questions, and they have to do so in a public way, and involve the wider community in the difficult work of providing a genuinely honest answer to the question of how this could have happened in their community. Firing the coach and the president is simply not enough, and pursuing answers to these questions without an open and thoughtful dialogue with the victims and their families is to miss the point: the harm done to these young boys should be at the center of this controversy, and those directly and indirectly responsible should place themselves and their resources at the disposal of the process of healing. This is a dialogue that must involve not only the trustees, administration, athletic department, faculty, students, and alumni, but also—to the extent that they are willing—the victims and their families. Penn State cannot be proud of what was allowed to happen there, but perhaps it can eventually be proud of the way in which it now responds to these revelations. This is a far more difficult task than mere punishment, and it is one in which all the members of the Penn State community can and should participate.
Hinman, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, writes
often about ethics. He is a member of the U-T Community Editorial
This article was published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on November 12, 2011: