Saturday, November 12, 2011

Penn State Refelctions (3)- The Dilemma of Ethics

Thursday I said the following in a post on the scandal at Penn State:

But the cautionary tale in all this is far deeper than the pain of watching Paterno in pain, losing his dream to a sick, VERY SICK man who was more interested in satisfying his own sick drives. It is far deeper than seeing a grand and prestigious university be undermined by authorities who felt it better to hide the truth than care about the safety of children.

The message is far more than football or universities or even the law. It is far more important than even a legendary individual like Paterno.
Very simply the message is about our humanity and our willingness to be more humane than we tend to be. The message is about taking care of our children and ourselves with dignity and respect. The message is that the letter of the law is not enough.

A couple days ago I was leading an in-service on an ethics presentation I have done. I commented to my colleagues that for me the theme of ethics isn't about what is legal or legal. It is often more about what "should" be done. In my field of counseling when we get into questions of ethics it often revolves around the legal stuff- the relationships we are not to have with clients, not taking advantage of power positions to take advantage of others.

Those are essential topics of ethics, of course, and I will certainly emphasize those in the courses I lead or teach on ethics. We must not avoid them. But neither can we avoid the more important issues of protection of the vulnerable or even going the extra mile, beyond the letter of the law, to do the next right thing.

As I was talking I ad libbed into the Penn State situation. I realized that under the legal issues and incredible sickness of the perpetrator, this is what makes it even more devastating.

Sadly this is where I fear Joe Paterno got lost 10 years ago. He admitted so in his retirement statement on Wednesday.
This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.
It is that "more" to have done where ethics can take over. An ethical standard short-circuited by following the letter of the law is unethical. Not illegal, but morally questionable. Paterno, as a man of integrity, knows that today. If he didn't learn it before Wednesday, he learned it when the Trustees of the university stood up with their own integrity. It was seen again last evening at the candlelight vigil and today by both teams on the field.

The leaders of the university who didn't even go as far as Paterno are even more morally questionable. The parallels between this situation and the scandals of the Catholic Church over the past decades are unmistakeable. It is in that leadership position that we have all been let down, blind-sided, taken advantage of by people who should have been better than that. They knew better, but were afraid to do what  might hurt them or their image or their institution. They believed on some level that their security, their position, their institution, was above the law. Or worse, that they were in the position to say what the law should or shouldn't do.

They and their institution and their "brand" and their security and safety was worth more than the safety and security of some young men, boys, unable to defend themselves and left even more defenseless by the actions of these self-important men.

What happened to these boys by Coach Sandusky was reprehensible, hateful, shameful and sinful.

What happened to these boys by the leadership of Penn State is just as reprehensible as they had the chance to do something and didn't.

I am aware as I write this of the anger in the depths of my soul for what has happened. I too- we all- have been abandoned by these non-leaders. We have been robbed of hope and dignity and trust in our public institutions. Again. Over and over it has happened- and will happen. I cannot help but think of two of my personal heroes from World War II who faced an evil greater than this.

First was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, outstanding theologian and courageous human being who participated in a plot to kill Hitler. He wanted to stop the insanity and destruction the Nazi regime was bringing on the world.  He lost his life in a Nazi concentration camp for it.

Second was Pastor Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor who stood up to the Nazi aggression. He didn't lose his life, thankfully, but stood up for what was right.

In situations far more dangerous, personally dangerous, than Penn State football, these two men did what was right. Against great odds they did the next right thing.

Some non-leaders at Penn State felt they had more to lose by doing what was right- so they didn't. The results, when finally found out, had far more destruction to far more people than would have happened ten years ago. And the original victims continue to be victimized.

I am sure that the story, as it continues to unfold, will continue to contain revelations we don't like to hear. There will be attempts to spin the story. There will be stuff that makes us repel in disgust and anger. Somewhere, I hope, we will find some of the ethically courageous who finally thought the time was long past when something right was to be done. Even if we never know their names, we can be grateful that they decided to honor the victims and not the victimizers.

May we all learn that lesson. Again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A thought provoking essay, my friend. I cannot help but think that the hero worship granted to such men as Paterno played a role in this disaster. What I mean, of course, is that those who told Paterno of what was going on felt they had done there duty and that the responsibility now lay with the hero. As you know, to exalt individuals too far serves shadow purposes too well. Ultimately, we are all responsible for everything. Given the impossibility of that ethos, we can at least do the best we can and for me that includes always keeping a "right-sizing" perspective on the great ones.