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Whose Leadership Failed?

Photo of Graham Spanier by Onward State's Dave Cole.

On March 12, the Penn State Board of Trustees released a statement offering a new reason for firing Joe Paterno, this time focusing on Paterno’s alleged “failure of leadership.” Let us therefore examine who was supposed to lead in the situation.

Pennsylvania’s Child Abuse Reporting Law
In 1975, in response to a national effort to increase reporting of child abuse, the Pennsylvania Legislature adopted a model comprehensive law governing child abuse cases. Called the Child Abuse Reporting Act (CARA), it has served admirably for almost four decades to govern procedures for all state agencies, schools, universities, and all other institutions having contact with children.

CARA establishes the procedures to be followed whenever child abuse is suspected. Relevant to Penn State, it applies to every administrator and teacher, and requires that he or she “shall report or cause a report to be made…when they have reasonable cause to suspect…that a child… is a victim of child abuse.”

But to whom do they report? Not to the police. The law establishes that the “person in charge of the institution” is responsible to do the actual reporting to the police or child welfare agencies. Section (c) specifically provides that “Whenever a person is required to report…that person shall immediately notify the person in charge of the institution…or the designated agent of the person in charge.”

CARA makes the “person in charge of the institution”—in this case Graham Spanier—ultimately responsible to report any suspected case of child abuse. Section (c) explicitly provides: “Upon notification, the person in charge or the designated agent, if any, shall assume the responsibility and have the legal obligation to report or cause a report to be made.”

Further, CARA is clear that multiple reports are not expected. It specifically provides: “This chapter does not require more than one report from any such institution, school, facility or agency.”

The Procedure at Penn State
At Penn State, it is clear that incidents of suspected child abuse are not to be reported directly to the police. Rather, one reports them up the chain of command. Mike McQueary reported to Joe Paterno, and Joe Paterno reported to Tim Curley, his superior in the chain of command. Curley and Schultz were president Spanier’s designated agents. Both McQueary and Paterno did exactly what CARA and University procedures say they are supposed to do.

Both Curley and Schultz then reported what they learned to the head of the institution—Graham Spanier—as CARA requires. For, it is the head of the institution who is ultimately required under the law to “assume the responsibility and have the legal obligation to report or cause a report to be made.”

Spanier’s Failure to Lead
It was unquestionably Graham Spanier’s duty to assume leadership in dealing with the reports from Paterno and McQueary as they were conveyed to him by Curley and Schultz. But this is precisely where Spanier failed to lead.

Spanier insists that he did not know that the incident was “sexual in nature.” According to the Grand Jury report, Spanier “testified that Curley and Schultz came to him in 2002 to report an incident with Jerry Sandusky that made a member of Curley’s staff ‘uncomfortable.” What was reported to Spanier? Spanier described it as “Jerry Sandusky in the football building locker area with a younger child and that they were horsing around in the shower.” (Grand Jury report, p. 10)

If Spanier is telling the truth that he “did not know” that it was sexual in nature, then this signifies a massive lack of leadership. If Spanier had even an ounce of leadership, he would have asked Curley and Schultz: “What exactly made the graduate assistant ‘uncomfortable’?” and “What exactly did the graduate assistant see?” In fact, Spanier would have asked himself “What exactly does ‘horsing around’ mean between a naked fifty-eight-year-old man and a naked ten year-old boy in an empty locker room shower on a Friday night?”

In Spanier did not ask these questions, then he could only have “not known” that the incident was sexual in nature by an act of willful blindness. All he had to do was ask. If Spanier had asked for the facts, and Curley and Schultz did not know them, then a real leader would have sent them back to get the facts.

Both Curley and Schultz claim that they also did not know that the incident was sexual in nature. But if this is true, it only means they also did not do their duty: i.e., they did not ask McQueary the simple questions: “What made you feel uncomfortable,” and “What exactly did you see?” If Curley and Schultz did not ask these questions, and Spanier let them go without getting the answers, then Spanier failed in not properly supervising them.

Quite telling is that neither Curley, nor Schultz, nor Spanier ever asked the identity of the ten year-old boy. The Grand Jury found that Schultz “never attempted to learn the identity of the child in the showers. No one from the University did so.” (Grand Jury report, p. 10) The Grand Jury also noted that: “Spanier testified that even in April, 2011, he did not know the identity of the person who reported the behavior.” (Grand Jury report, p. 10)

What is clear is that Spanier had no interest in getting the facts. If Spanier had even the slightest concern for the victims of child molestation, he would have found out. That was his duty as a leader.

Whose Leadership Failed?
All one has to do is to examine the structure for reporting suspected child abuse that Pennsylvania has had in place for almost four decades to see exactly whose leadership failed. Penn State has suffered from a massive failure of leadership on the part Graham Spanier—and if there is any truth to “the buck stops here,” the failure was Spanier’s alone. All that has happened since—the whole Sandusky scandal, from the destruction of Joe Paterno to all the other children Sandusky is alleged to have molested in the intervening nine years—would not have happened but for Spanier’s lack of leadership.

Unfortunately, Spanier’s failure has been obscured by Governor Tom Corbett and the Board blaming Joe Paterno. As a result, Graham Spanier’s failure has gone all but unnoticed. But, until Spanier is fully held to account for all that has happened, this scandal will not easily go away. And now, Spanier is being appointed to a leadership role in national security. God help us.

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