Reading through former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s deep report into the culture and decision-making at Penn State that allowed former football coach Jerry Sandusky to go unpunished for so long, I was struck by the way the report was framed. “The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel,” the report says, “is the total and consistent disregard by the most sernior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” There’s no question that compliance with the law and with Penn State regulations were major issues in Sandusky’s case, but there’s something powerful about framing the problem in terms of empathy. There’s an extent to which empathy requires more, both emotionally and morally, than mere compliance. And throughout the report, there are small details that illustrate how empathy flowed up the hierarchy at Penn State, while it was consistently denied to people who were less powerful.
When Joe Paterno, Sandusky’s superior and mentor, was fired from his position as Penn State’s head football coach, there were major protests at Penn State on the grounds that Paterno, a Penn State legend, had been treated callously and unfairly. So it’s interesting to see little incidencies of Paterno’s own lack of empathy in the report. When Mike McQueary, who witnessed Sandusky raping a child in the Penn State locker room, called Paterno to see if he could speak with him about what he’d seen, “McQueary recalled Paterno said he did not have a job for McQueary so ‘if that’s what it’s about, don’t bother coming over,’” an unpleasant little aside. In the timeline of Sandusky’s tenure at Penn State, the one item notes that “Paterno reports the incident to [then-Athletic Director Timothy] Curley and [then-Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary] Schultz on Sunday, February 11 as Paterno did not ‘want to interfere with their weekends.’”
Even though Sandusky was the subject of serious accusations, the report documents many cases where authorities appear invested less in determining his guilt or innocence than in his comfort. When John Seasock, a counselor who met with one of Sandusky’s victims, made his report, he suggested a conversation with Sandusky but noted that “The intent of the conversation with Mr. Sandusky is not to cast dispersion (sic) upon his actions but to help him stay out of such gray area situations in the future.” A detective, Ron Schreffler “recalled that the interview was conducted in an office in the Lasch Building so as not to put Sandusky on the defensive.” Curley, in an email discussing how to handle Sandusky, proposed a less aggressive approach because “I am having trouble with going to everyone, but the person involved…I would indicate we feel there is a problem and we want to assist the individual to get professional help.”