#472 – Dick Bernard: Penn State/Joe Paterno/Relationships between Vulnerable Children and Authority Figures

There is no need to recite the volumes already, or to be, written about the story at Penn State. (I write, when they are on the field against Nebraska, at this moment, behind 10-0. Entering the game they were the 12th ranking football team in the nation, their opponent the 19th ranking team).
Of course, all that is totally irrelevant. As one commentator said a few minutes ago, it is as if the quarterback, Paterno, fumbled the ball on the goal line at the edge of the greatest victory in history….
I have another perspective that may add a bit to the necessary conversation.
Being human, with a fair amount of seniority amongst my cohorts in today’s population, I know a little bit about human nature.
Being Catholic, I know how stupidity plays out among power people who think that they can contain and control incidents of sexual abuse within the confines of their church authority (that began to unravel in the 1990s, a long time ago, and continues to this day.) It didn’t and doesn’t work. But some in authority still don’t quite get it.
But I have another insight, born of representing public school teachers in a teachers union from 1972-2000 and seeing the statutory transition from, initially, restrictions on corporal punishment (spanking), to mandatory reporting of even a suspicion of abuse of a child by an adult. The transition was complete long before my staff career ended. What astonishes me in the current situation is that this bunch at Penn State could have been so utterly clueless.
There have been, are, and will continue to be incidents of abuse in public education and elsewhere. We are humans, after all.
But in my particular venue, public education, the incidence was very, very tiny, but when uncovered very, very visible. (In the United States today there are perhaps nearly 50,000,000 children in schools; and perhaps 6,000,000 school employees including substitute teachers, aides, bus drivers, cooks, and on and on and on. With such an immense cohort, in school for an average of 171 days a year in Minnesota, there is no end of possibilities for problems, but amazingly few problems occur.)
In Minnesota, the relevant statute has existed since 1975, and can be viewed in its entirety here. It has been amended frequent times, and doubtless Penn State will cause it to be revisited once again.
I remember the general evolution of this law.
It began pretty simply, probably in 1975, essentially prohibiting spanking of, in anatomy terms, the gluteus maximus (to we lay people, the “rear end”). I don’t recall the genesis of the Law, but probably it was from some excess by someone, somewhere. It was a difficult adjustment for the enforcer in a school, often the shop teacher, more often the principal. The paddle had to go. To this day, there are some who advocate the paddle….
As years went on, the Law evolved.
I wish I could remember the year, but I think it was sometime in the 1980s, when the mandatory reporting provision was first enacted. This came to be called the ‘no touch’ rule in my public education jurisdiction.
The reaction was in the direction of zero tolerance of adult-child touch, in any of its manifestations.
I remember the most dramatic aberration (response): kindergarten teachers, virtually all female, became fearful of doing such innocuous things as helping a kid tie his or her shoelaces.
As time went on, the system and the individuals found more equilibrium, but the point remains, as it relates to Penn State, that the business of adult-vulnerable child relationships has been an active part of legal policy discussion since at least 1975 – 36 years.
There is an entire additional discussion, in this case, of the role of football as a symbol of power and authority in our society. Joe Paterno was an institution because he “brought home the bacon” for Penn State in prestige and money.
But, as I say, that is an entire other discussion.
UPDATES (Notice also comment included with this post):
Comment from Bonnie, Minneapolis: Well said, Dick. Hard to understand their cluelessness. Thanks for continuing your good work.
Comment from Bob, suburban St. Paul, Nov. 12:The only moral response by Penn State would have been to forfeit the remainder of their season to emphasize the significance of this horrendous criminal behavior. The students and fans who want to deify their coach and gloss over this criminality need a strong message from the university that this behavior is to be abhorred and treated as a criminal matter.
I believe mandatory reporting started in about 1970 in Minnesota for a host of professionals such as medical personnel, social workers, all mental health professionals, and education staff. Defining abuse to include corporal punishment by teachers must have come later or in 1975. Prior to the mandatory reporting law it was very hard for doctors and others to report abuse for fear of being sued by the parent for violating confidentiality. In 1969 or so I attended a conference at the U of Denver where a Dr Kemp had identified the “battered child syndrome”. I was with a contingent from Ramsey County including the local juvenile court judge, the head of psychiatry at the old St. Paul Ramsey, a county attorney, a police officer and others. When we came back we developed the Ramsey County Child Abuse Team to facilitate coordinated action by the various entities that intervene in abuse cases. Mandatory reporting has been on the books in Pennsylvania for many years. The Penn State staff had to know about their legal obligation to report. It is the same old story of those in power believing that their sacred institution (Church or Football Program) has priority over civil law.
My dates or years are a bit fuzzy but I believe roughly correct without doing in-depth research.
Note from Dick: whatever the actual dates, awareness about abuse, and the laws on reporting, have a very long history.
From Jeff, south suburbs, Nov. 13: The parties involved need to be punished severely… that means the offender
Sandusky, and if any coaches or university officials condoned or did not
report the crime then they also should be prosecuted if they broke the law
in PA.
Obviously Penn State will pay a very heavy price in lawsuits and settlements
in regard to this matter. These civil actions will help Penn State and
other institutions understand that protecting innocent children is paramount
and institutional protection of football or a university’s name is nothing
compared to this. Just think of how Penn State would have been held up as a
correct role model had they handled the situation the way it should have …
morally and legally.
As to the matter of football games. I personally differ on this. if the NCAA
or the State of PA wants to punish the football program at Penn State in the
future that is fine. The games that are set up are contracts that are
certainly not inviolate, and Penn State could forfeit them of course. I
think it would have been difficult last week. My feeling is however that
the players in the program today, and the students at the University today
should not be punished for things they had no involvement in. if the
program is punished in the future in some way , and both criminal and civil
sanctions and punishments are metered out as they are justly deserved I
think that is enough for now.
I do have sensitivity to the fact that sports or a sports program should not
supersede the criminality and heinous nature of the offenses ; but I also
think that punishing students and student athletes today for things that
happened 10 years ago and for which they had no control would be wrong in my
Another followup comment from Bob in suburban St. Paul: Dick, I just attempted some research on the origins of our law in MN without much success. I did learn that in 1962 the medical profession began bringing the subject to our attention. In 1974 the federal government passed legislation providing funding to for state programs to address the issue. I do know we were in Denver in 1969 learning about how to develop a multi-disciplinary team at the local level. Just when MN outlawed child abuse remains question for me. Until states passed laws to make child abuse illegal it was dealt with under laws prohibiting cruelty to animals. What is stunning about the subject is the fact that it took us so long to define child abuse as criminal. Until then children were considered chattel. A doctor called me one time when I managed Child Welfare Intake for Ramsey County. He was trying to tell me through the use of obscure language that this young teen-age girl was a victim of incest. He could not be explicit or give me facts to go on because the law did not mandate reporting and he was going out on a limb legally. When I asked him for facts or how he knew these things, he said I just had to trust his medical acumen. It was obvious that this doctor was very nervous about telling me anything but wanted to tip us off. After the law was passed he was required to report and was protected legally. Thankfully we have advanced somewhat, but obviously not at Penn State. Bob
And yet another, from Bob, on Nov. 13: Dick, Try as I may the earliest mandetory reporting law I can find for Minnesota dates to 1974. This seems at odds with my memory of Judge Archie Gingold and others pushing for such a law as early as I969, and our child protection interventions prior to 1974. Perhaps we used other other child protection laws and the mandatory reporting law came along later in 1974, which also provided legal protection for the reporter and really changed everything. My memory is obviously flawed. Bob

1 reply
  1. Bruce Fisher
    Bruce Fisher says:

    This is one more example, and a particularly horrible example, of our culture worshiping false gods. In this case the “sports god” of football.


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