Responding to Abuse Allegations: the Penn State Example
As the unfortunate scandal at Penn State University continues to unfold, we want to make sure that our clients see and understand how the firestorm of a child abuse allegation can touch and affect even the most respected and tenured individuals within an organization. According to a grand-jury report released Nov. 5 by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, a former assistant to Penn State coach Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, formed a foundation called The Second Mile and used its events to meet young boys who he later sexually abused. (You can read more about the facts of the events here.) As reported in headline news and particularly by NBC Sports here, coach Joe Paterno - the winningest coach in major college football history - was fired yesterday evening for his actions (or inactions) related to these events. Also relieved of duty was the President of Penn State, Graham Spanier. Both men were ousted by the university's Board of Trustees who were fed up with the damage being done to the university's reputation by the child sex-abuse scandal involving Paterno's one-time heir apparent.
It is critical for church leaders to recognize that failure to properly manage and control childcare in our churches will inevitably lead to the horror of child abuse. As demonstrated by the Penn State scandal, the foreseeable potential consequences include: severe emotional and psychological trauma to the young victims; shattered spiritual lives of the victims and their families; shockwaves of mistrust and disillusionment throughout the public, and particularly the inside supporters of the organization; fears and concerns of families associated with the victims at the realization that a child abuser typically has had multiple victims; the worst of adverse media publicity that is generally renewed multiple times over as the incident works its way through Child Protective Services, the criminal justice system, and the civil justice system; and, of course, the multimillion dollar lawsuit that may take years to be filed (the statute of limitations is tolled for minors) and even longer to come to a conclusion.
By structuring and implementing a plan to respond to allegations of abuse, you can cover all of the appropriate steps that will be necessary should the worst occur. If you don’t prepare yourselves in advance, it is probable that you’ll act on emotion, and make unwise choices, rather than following the most advantageous path to protect the victim, the rights of the accused, and the church. Churches cannot afford to be naïve. The price is much too high.