What’s right?

I take special interest in all news stories dealing with child abuse, from that which has tarnished the Catholic Church, to those dealing with teachers in schools, to the case of the Penn State scandal with Jerry Sandusky. What I find palpable in reading about each one is that the behaviors typically go on for a significant period of time, and in so many of the cases, someone at some critical juncture didn’t do what we might label as “the right thing.”

Why is there this lag of time and attention?

The currently-unfolding Penn State example falls into this category, and any confusion about what was right or supposed to happen is a direct result of a combination of rules that, unfortunately, all don’t result in the “right thing” being done. Before I go further, I should probably state what I think the “right thing” is: intervene until the abuse is stopped.

Child abuse of a sexual nature—like all forms of child abuse—is morally wrong in our society. It happens, of course, but most Americans do not condone the abuse of children. So, the first layer of rules we have is a moral one. Despite what society thinks, I believe we each set our own personal moral compass. And when we encounter something that appears “immoral” to us, we have to make a judgement call. Will we accept it? Or will we fight it?

There are lots of examples of immoral behaviors we have little control over—from a cheating sports figure or politician—to school administrators who are cheating on high-stakes tests. And we might each rank these somehow in our minds, from “little white lies” on one side of the continuum to “child abuse” on another.

In order to codify some of these moral judgement calls, organizations develop policies and our government develops laws. When the new president of Penn State University said the university will now not only comply with the law, but do “what is right,” he’s making a critical statement of the laws and policies that govern how to handle an alleged sexual abuse encounter on the Penn State campus. The statement is wholly political, but each time these cases come to light, it illuminates the complexity between our personal moral guidance, the policies in place to protect the organization and its stakeholders, and the laws in place, to protect society.

This case is complex for a variety of reasons, many of which we can only speculate upon. Something inappropriate is observed. A report is made. Things go up some chain-of-command. At that point, Penn State knew it had a scandal on its hands. It seems that perhaps the child who happened to be using Penn State facilities at the time wasn’t at the center of discussions, but the ramifications of Sandusky’s affiliation with the university and perhaps even, earlier rumblings of similar problems.

I’m anxious to see how this case unfolds. I believe within Penn State’s power is to re-write and re-work their policies so that “doing what’s right” is always on the books. It should be lucid and everyone associated with their organization needs to understand the policies. And yes—when it comes to things like child abuse—anyone working with children should carry with themselves a personal policy that rises above all others. We should not only report what is observed but also actively assume a role of prevention. It’s a risk, I know, if this personal policy isn’t concordant with organizational policies. But that’s what it means to do “the right thing.”

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