Lessons From Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal

November 9, 2011  |  CRIMINAL, ETHICS, IN THE NEWS  |  Share

The Penn State sexual abuse scandal is yet another tragic situation grabbing headlines that reinforces civic, moral, and legal truths we can ill afford to ignore.

First as parents, this story emphasizes our primary duty to protect the safety and security of our children.  The innumerable sex abuse scandals from seemingly reputable institutions undermine any notion that we can trust our children to others, no matter how trustworthy or reputable the organization to which they belong.  Predators lurk everywhere and feed upon the illusion of safety, serenity and security.  The days of confidently leaving our children in the care of others have unfortunately long since passed.

 The second reoccurring lesson, for both individuals and institutions, is that the “cover-up” almost inevitably leads to unnecessary moral, civil and criminal liability. All too often reputable organizations dealing with allegations such as sex abuse or embezzlement focus on the short-term embarrassment of  disclosure (such as a reduction in donor contributions) rather than the long-term damage created by the almost inevitable disclosure of the initial criminal conduct and that organizations systematic efforts  to prevent or obstruct that disclosure. 

 The criminal indictments lodged against the Penn State officials (and attendant fall out) are a sad, but very real reminder that organizational embarrassment does not outweigh moral, civil and/or criminal obligations. Joe Paterno’s dismissal and tarnished reputation were absolutely avoidable.

 Organizations dealing with disclosures of potentially criminal conduct should immediately assemble a team that may include, depending upon the particular allegations, seasoned attorneys (including outside counsel), investigators and public relations experts.  That team, led by counsel, will be able to assess the underlying allegations, establish the civil and/or criminal exposure and obligations of all of parties involved, and steer the organization through the many moral and legal pitfalls. The failure to address allegations of misconduct in such an objective, meaningful manner inevitably leads to additional moral, civil and criminal exposure.

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