What the Penn State Scandal Teaches Me About How I Ought to Examine Myself

The recent release of the Freeh report has been a major news bombshell in this region, and justifiably so.  There is so much to say, and so much has been said.  One thing I wanted to share, even as my wife and I continue to digest more information and mull over all of the angles to this story, is to encourage folks to think about what in their life they would put ahead of doing the right thing.

I know it is easy to be outraged at the many people - from the very powerful to the relatively powerless - who knew or saw something and didn't do anything, and I am not excusing their silence.  But I am honest enough with myself that I can at least understand the reasons behind their lack of actions.  Being afraid to speak up, being so tied up with something that you'd rather protect its image than do the right thing, wanting to believe that someone didn't do what you've heard they did . . . these are all things that caused grievous harm to too many people, and yet these are all things I could see myself doing. 

And, in that situation, it would be wrong.  And so I urge you to examine yourself as I am urging myself to examine myself.  What is so important to me that, if put in a similar situation, I would hide and equivocate and divert and shrink back instead of doing the right thing?  For the people involved in this situation, it was good and reasonable things: wanting to keep your job, wanting to protect a respected leader, wanting to preserve the reputation of a hallowed institution.  And yet it was allegiance to those things that kept so many people from doing the right thing, with tragic consequences.

Please don't misunderstand what I am saying here.  People knew, and had the moral obligation to do something, and not only did they not, but they helped make it harder for something to be done.  The point I am making is not that this isn't reprehensible and disgusting and deeply disappointing - because it is all of those things and more - but that those involved did this because they failed to let go of their previous allegiances for the sake of the greater responsibility of stopping further harm from happening.  And those allegiances, while wrongly placed as more important than doing the right thing, were not themselves inherently bad things to have, just bad things to adhere to in light of what had transpired. 

When we take a good hard look inside ourselves to make sure we are right, it is usually to see if there are any wrong things about our lives - bad habits, sinful tendencies, latent evils - that we need to root out.  But one lesson from the Penn State sex abuse scandal is that we need to examine the right things in our lives as well, to make sure we understand when those right things need to be cast aside for a moment in order to do the right thing.  That's a much rarer and harder internal examination, but one I hope all of us undertake, should we ever be put in a similar situation.

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