What happened at Penn State is tragic on many levels, the most significant of which is the horrific and unfathomable acts against young boys and the fact that those acts were allowed to continue years after they could have been stopped.
Sad, too, is the fact, based on an investigative report released earlier in the week,that top officials — respected and admired individuals — at the university were aware they had a pedophile on campus and didn’t lift a finger to do anything about Jerry Sandusky’s behavior or remove him from the campus.
It also must be said that the tragedy extends to the reputation of Joe Paterno, the much loved coach with the stellar football record, whose name and legacy will now forever be tarnished because of his purported knowledge of Sandusky’s misconduct and his decade-long silence on the sexual abuse allegations against the now convicted sexual predator.
And just as horrific is the fact that Paterno, then-President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and now-retired vice president Gary Schultz hushed up child sexual abuse allegations against Sandusky in 2001 for fear of bad publicity.
It’s a sad testament to the values many hold dear when how something is going to look to others is the deciding factor in right and wrong.
Yet, if the investigative report, detailed by former FBI director Louis Freeh who oversaw the probe of Penn State, is to be believed, the university’s highest officials weighed whether they should report alleged sexual abuse against how it would be viewed by the general public.
Too often it’s that kind of skewed thinking that dooms public officials. Rather than admit wrongdoing, whether by themselves or someone else, for fear of how it will be perceived in the public arena, they decline to comment on it, sweep it under the rug, shadow it in discussions only meant for true closed session topics and, at times, ignore it all together.
All for appearances.
In Penn State’s case, the fear of bad publicity put young boys in danger because everyone who knew of the purported allegations refused to acknowledge them or, more important still, failed to report it for more than a decade ago.
We fear, on a much smaller scale, that same type of behavior happens locally, when government officials refused to talk about issues during public meetings for fear of airing what they perceive as dirty laundry in the open. And, instead, they devise ways to skirt the N.C. Open Meetings Law to discuss those issues behind closed doors and out of the earshot of the public.
Sometimes they hold those discussions during closed session meetings, sometimes they use the telephone, calling board members individually to gauge feelings on issues so they don’t have to bring it up in a meeting where the public would — and should be — privy to the conversation.
And just like with the Penn State case, eventually the cloud of secrecy will lift and all that which officials have tried so desperately to hide will come out in full view of the public and likely be worse than had it been aired from the start.
Public officials should take note of the lessons that can be learned from Penn State and consider what we always preach that openness is far better than trying to hide things that won’t stay hidden forever any way.