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New charged filed on November 6 accusing three former Penn State administrators of engaging in a "conspiracy of silence" to cover up child sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky raise questions about whether iconic football Coach Joe Paterno could have been charged if he were still living.

If former President Graham Spanier, university Athletic Director Tim Curley, and former administrator Gary Schultz had been charged while Paterno escaped prosecution, the former administrators probably might have complained that the coach was getting special treatment.


Those who have watched the case said the grand jury deliberations paint Paterno as an active participant in the conspiracy. "The reality is that he knew. He knew early on, and he chose to protect the image of the football program and to protect Penn State," said Jennifer Storm, an advocate for victims who has worked with two of the young men Sandusky molested when they were boys.

But Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor, said that without knowing everything that state prosecutors in the case know, it's not fair to conclude that there was probable cause to charge Paterno. "Once the case is tried and all the evidence has come out, it might be possible to make that kind of retroactive assessment, but right now it's too difficult," Antkowiak said.

For me, this is a good time to review the facts of the Penn State scandal and raise ethical questions. I have no doubt there was a cover-up and Paterno was the primary participant. Based on my assumption, I raise the following ethical questions:

What motivates an otherwise ethical person to do the wrong thing when faced with an ethical dilemma? Why did Joe Paterno and leaders of Penn State University look the other way and fail to act on irrefutable evidence that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had raped and molested young boys, an offense for which Sandusky is serving a 30-to-60- year sentence?

According to the independent report by Louis Freeh that investigated the sexual abuse, four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University including Spanier, Curly, Schultz, and Paterno, failed to protect against a child predator harming children for over a decade by concealing Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities.

The Freeh report characterizes the inactions as lacking empathy for the victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being in addition to which they exposed the first abused-child to additional harm by altering Sandusky, who was the only one who knew the child’s identity, of what assistant coach Mike McQueary saw in the shower on the night of February 9, 2001.


The following explanations are given in the Freeh report for the failure of University leaders to take action to identify the February 9, 2001 child victim and for not reporting Sandusky to the authorities:

  • The desire to avoid bad publicity by reporting the incident
  • The failure of the University’s Board of Trustees to have reporting mechanisms in place to ensure disclosure of major risks to the University
  • A President who discouraged discussion and dissent
  • A lack of awareness of child abuse issues, the Clery Act that requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their respective campuses
  • A lack of whistleblower policies and protections
  • A culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community


Former Penn State President Graham Spanier is quoted as saying in an interview about how the University worked that “honesty, integrity and always doing what was in the best interests of the university (italics added) was how everyone agreed to operate and …”we’ve always operated as a family. Our personal and social and professional lives were all very intertwined.

At Penn State a culture existed that placed the interests of the University, as perceived by its leadership, ahead of the interests of the abused children and the public trust. The tone that was set by Paterno and Spanier was one of the cover-up of potentially damaging information about the institution and its football program.

The culture of an organization should be built on ethical values such as honesty, integrity, trust, responsibility and accountability. While Penn State may have espoused to follow such principles, the reality was its actions did not match these stated goals of behavior.


Leaders of organizations who may be successful at what they do and see themselves as ethical and moral still cultivate a collection of what Max Bazerman and Ann Trebrunsel call blind spots. Blind spots refers to the gap between who you want to be and the person you actually are. In other words, most of us want to do the right thing – to act ethically – but internal and external pressures get in the way.

The authors attribute blind spots to the concept of bounded ethicality, that is, psychological processes that lead even good people to engage in ethically questionable behavior that contradicts their own preferred ethics. As in the Penn State situation, bounded ethicality comes into play when individuals make decisions that harm others even though that harm is inconsistent with these decision makers’ conscious beliefs and preferences.   

The moral of the Penn State saga is not to allow one’s loyalties to others and an institution get in the way of doing the right thing. The Penn State officials acted as if ethics is situational and in that situation it was more important to protect the image of the university than put an end to and prosecute child abuse.

A person who acts wrongly in one instance out of greed or self-interest forfeits the right to call him or herself an ethical person. That doesn’t mean all of us do the right thing all the time. But what it does mean is we aspire to do the right thing; we know the difference between right and wrong; and we act accordingly.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 7, 2012