November 10th, 2011
12:48 PM ET

My Take: Paterno's unfulfilled ethical obligations

Editor's Note: Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D., is director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

By Paul Root Wolpe, Special to CNN

(CNN) - I moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1969, when I was two years old, and then to Philadelphia when I was 12. Except for a stint in graduate school, I lived my life in Pennsylvania until moving to Atlanta three years ago.

In other words, I was raised in the land of Joe Paterno.

Joe Paterno started coaching at Penn State in 1966, so there was no time over the course of my almost 40 years as a Pennsylvanian that he was not at the helm of the state’s signature collegiate football team.

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But more, Joe Paterno was a symbol of all that was right and good about being a coach. The graduation rate of Penn State Football players is 78% - 86% for black players - which is way above the average for Division I teams.

His statue outside Beaver Stadium, engraved with the words “Educator, Coach, Humanitarian,” captured the esteem in which he was held, the power of his image, and the reputation he had for shaping his players into responsible adults, not just accomplished athletes.

It makes it so much more difficult to understand the lapse in judgment that has now ended his career.

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At first blush, it seems that Joe Paterno quickly and decisively did the right thing: upon hearing of an incident allegedly seen by a graduate student of the sexual abuse of young boy by an assistant coach in a shower at Penn State, Paterno immediately informed two members of the administration of the allegation.

Unfortunately, no action was taken by the university. The assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, allegedly continued to abuse young boys before the story recently broke.

Did Joe Paterno fulfill his legal and role obligations? As an employee of Penn State, he appropriately informed his superiors of a violation. But as a citizen with knowledge of a possible serious crime it was his responsibility to report it to the police.

Alums and students: share your thoughts

Even more, he is ending his storied career as a coach because his ethical obligations were not fulfilled. Anyone – but even more so a man of his stature and power – who knows of abuse of a child is immediately burdened with the moral responsibility not only to report it, but to work actively to end it.

Ethical obligations are different than legal or role-based obligations. When we see people who are being threatened, and we have the power to intervene, we are morally obligated to do so.

The obligation is even greater when we see a threat to the powerless and vulnerable – to children, or the elderly, or others easily exploited.

In fact, the real hero of the story, the one with ethical courage, was the 15 year-old boy who came forth and reported the abuse.

Why was nothing done at Penn State until last weekend’s criminal indictment?

There are probably many reasons, but one seems to tie in the Penn State case to the recent spate of child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

In both cases, you have tight-knit, somewhat cloistered communities, with a hierarchal structure and a sense of an in-group and out-group. The football program at Penn State is an elite program, and it is drilled into their heads that they are a team, a family, a special group with special obligations.

Joe Paterno’s responsibility was made more difficult by the fact that he was the figurehead of that group, that he was the one always telling his players and coaches that they were a team, that they had to stick together and support one another. Families tend to be careful about protecting their reputations, tend to be wary of outside authorities, and tend to protect members even when they transgress.

We are often told today that we have a paucity of leadership in this country. Where are the great leaders who had both vision and integrity? Pennsylvania was the Land of Paterno because we all really believed we had such a leader.

Paterno was more than a football coach. He was a man who believed not only in winning football games but in doing the right thing for his players, the school, the community.

The sorrow we feel is not really for Paterno and for this tragic lapse at the end of his career. And it is not solely for the victims of his neglect, though our hearts go out to them and the pain they and that their families must be enduring.

We feel the pain of our loss of innocence, of the moral of failure another leader we believed in but who, in the end, could not fulfill our expectations.

Once again, the mighty have fallen.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Root Wolpe.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Ethics • Opinion • Sex abuse

soundoff (142 Responses)
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    November 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  5. Jon

    I disagree that " Pennsylvania was the Land of Paterno". There is a place in Pennsylvania where Paterno and PSU have been and will always be despised, not because of the recent allegations, but because of Tradition and Loyalty – that place is called Oakland, in Pittsburgh, home of the Pitt Panthers!

    November 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  6. Amused1944

    "He who loses wealth loses much; he who loses a friend loses more, but he who loses his courage loses all.
    by Miguel de Cervantes
    "Courage is the first of the human qualities...without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning."
    by Wiston Churchhill

    November 18, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  7. evelyn

    The way I see it the only reason a man would not report such a crime is they are guilty of it also THINK ABOUT IT
    Any red blooded mans reaction would be SAVE THE CHILD RIGHT NOW
    That man is way over 6 ft tall imagine him on a 10 yr old no way could you ignore that.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:52 am |
  8. myklds

    To those who have faith, NO explanation is necessary. While to those who don't have (faith), NO explaination would be enough to satisfy its necessity.

    May God Bless all atheists with faith.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      ignorance is bliss

      November 13, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • Treason Shouts

      That's why you always have yours and has advertised it on this board.

      You may always have a blissful day.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do you think that spamming this little piece of pap will make it valuable, mykids?

      November 13, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • kNOW WHAT?

      @Tom Tom

      You're a pap creature!

      November 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • I concur

      And nothing could make him valuable, even spamming. LOL!

      November 15, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  9. Renae Mann

    Hey Dan that's disgusting it's children being molested & having their lives destroyed.Even if you're not a parent that's not an accepted comment sicko. Hope you're not another one who thinks it's ok to mess with kids to make that kind of statement.If so,you deserve whatever you get in life also.

    November 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  10. Reality

    Failures to follow two simple rules, "Do No Harm" and "Call A Cop" define the current "vomit inducing" situation at Penn State, the Boy Scouts of America, the RCC, the Southern Baptist Convention, Seventh Day Adventists, Judaism et al.

    No God, god(s) required, needed or desired !!!

    November 12, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  11. *frank*

    Senility is a helluva drug

    November 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Well, *frank*, you know....um... never mind.

      November 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  12. captain america

    Chad that is what Mr. Paterno did , he reported it to higher authority,he himself regrets not taking it further as more accusations have come out.Even so accusations are not proof.The real problem is with the original eye witness not taking appropriate action and instead relegating his report to the realm of gossip and hearsay.

    November 11, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I can't for the life of me understand why ANYONE would defend Paterno here. He knew what was going on. He has the standing at the school and in the community to make sure this was investigated fully and that his friend was brought to justice. I don't care that he feels bad now that his part in this was revealed. One of our jobs as human beings is to make sure that pedophiles don't have access to children. Paterno turned a blind eye.

      November 11, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • captain america

      In your rush to judgement you have abandoned common sense.Paterno did not have first hand knowledge of what, if anything was going on.What information he was given he passed on to higher authority.The eye witness had the only testimony that was legally valid.Try reading the story before commenting.

      November 11, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      A public school teacher would be sued for having done what Paterno did. Paterno had an obligation to call the police and report this crime. He didn't do it.

      November 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • captain america

      Paterno is not charged with any crime ,nor is he a witness to any crime.The responsibility is with the witness not everyone the witness talks to.

      November 11, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No, it is not. Paterno, as a public educator in PA, was obligated to report this incident, whether he personally observed it or not, to the police. You are wrong, captain clueless.

      November 11, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Try to see it this way, captain. If a student were to tell his teacher that he saw an adult molesting another student, that teacher has a legal obligation to report it to authorities. The teacher is NOT required to have proof or to have witnessed anything. It doesn't make a bit of difference whether Paterno saw the incident personally or not, any more than it makes a difference whether any public school teacher witnessed abuse or simply suspected it.

      You need to read the law.

      November 11, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I don't care if Paterno faces legal charges for this. He deserves his damnation in the court of public opinion because when a witness came forward and said he saw one of Paterno's coaches ra.ping a child, all Paterno did was the very least he could do to satisfy the letter of the law. Because he chose to shut his eyes to these allegations, who knows how many more children were hurt.

      It's funny how christians bellow and fume about the rights of a fetus, but when an actual child is being molested, they have more concern about the football coach that looked away than the children who suffered.

      November 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Tally, you are my hero! That is absolutely on target.

      November 11, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • captain america

      Fondest hopes that you both get reported on hearsay evidence sometime.

      November 11, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      captain azzhole, you are an idiot. There is a LEGAL OBLIGATION of adults who are employees in public education to report any POSSIBLE incidents of child abuse. What part of that do you fail to grasp, oh, f8cktard?

      November 11, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Captain, you are, to put it mildly, an idiot.

      It is REQUIRED that employees of public schools report to authorities whenever they even SUSPECT there is child abuse. What part of that do you think is wrong? Do you think a teacher, a coach, a professor should wait until he/she has PROOF that there's abuse??

      You moron-if it were YOUR KID, would you want a person to wait until he/she saw it happening to your baby before being compelled by law to report suspected abuse?

      If so, please don't EVER have any children. You're not fit to be a parent.

      November 11, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Really, captain retard, were you born stupid or do you practice daily?

      November 11, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • *frank*

      captain america and herbie both neglect to put spaces after their sentences....

      November 11, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Fondest hopes that someday you will care more about the innocent victims of crimes than the person who covered up those crimes. You true colors show, CA, and while you name yourself after a superhero, the truth is that you are a craven hypocrite.

      November 11, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Thanks, *frank*, maybe someone will put a space between herbie's eyes, point blank.

      It wouldn't be a problem-there's nothing inside the skull anyway.

      November 11, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      herbie must have developed "Stockholm Syndrome" toward his abusers. That's why he's so sympathetic to Joe's situation. Poor herbalicious.

      November 11, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hmmm. On second thought, maybe herbie/captain america is sympathetic towards Joe Paterno because he himself has been in Paterno's shoes. Maybe herbie has been told of abuse and has failed to report it. Or MAYBE herbie has committed such abuse and has been reported!

      Yeah, either scenario is quite plausible where the burbler is concerned.

      November 11, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • captain america

      Lets see ,Tom tom, judgmental,leaps to conclusions without facts,arrogant and basically a useless piece of sh it.Yeah ,i'll accept her as that.Witch hunting beach.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      AWww. Poor little herbie got his azz handed to him yet again. And now he's whining about it yet again.

      You're such a loser.

      November 12, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  13. CHoffman

    I feel terrible for Joe Paterno. Any of us could be caught in such a snare today. A friend tells us of something they saw – we are not sure it is right or even true because we were not there – we HOPE there is a misunderstanding – it would be AWFUL to have someone ousted from office because the chicken said the sky was falling and it isn't really true and so we report it to our superiors and trust they will search it out – do what is really right rather than heresay – a decade later we receive a phone call to say we are fired from an amazing 60 years of hard work and contribution because we reported but did not act ourselves in the end, on heresay. I believe it was kindness and giving someone the benefit of the doubt that stopped Joe from doing something drastic long ago and I believe he deserves the same treatment, kindness and the public and school he has given his all too offering him the 'benefit of the doubt'. Wouldn't you hope someone would give you this? Enough fingers eager to point, enough chickens eager to peck the minute one has an egg fall of his very full plate. Any of us could make the same mistake – believing in the goodness of people over rumors run rancid. Joe did the right thing – he reported it. Did the school do more? Then why is Joe fired? wonder if you would like similar judgement on what you did when someone that you hardly know if you should trust tells you your best friend and coworker, who you feel that you do know and trust, might have been messing around. I am all for protecting children and those who coach and teach them.

    November 11, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I agree that it is a very sad end to a lifelong career of service, but Paterno represents Penn State, and Penn State is a "brand". That brand has been tarnished and that means that in order to atone for its mistakes and recover its reputation, anyone involved will have to go.

      It's no different than firing the CEO for the misdeeds of his employees when they were under his watch.

      November 11, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I don't feel sorry for him. He was the head coach. He knew the allegations. He chose to shut his eyes and let children pay the price. Had he pursued it, had he used his influence as a nationally-known coach to make sure there was adequate investigation, then he would not deserve this treatment. But he didn't. He'll get no sympathy from me.

      November 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Please don't misunderstand, tally. I don't feel sorry for Paterno. I simply feel sadness that what was an illustrious career was ruined by a terrible lapse of judgment that affected the lives of children. There is no excuse.

      November 11, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • tallulah13

      No worries, Tom. It is sad when it is revealed that someone who has done much good has also done something so incomprehensible. But we all make our choices in life. Paterno's choice truly damaged innocents, and while it's understandable why he did as he did, understanding is not the same as condoning.

      November 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No doubt. Someone should drill a hole in captain sh8thead's noggin and pour that into it.

      November 11, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • lovelyjmc

      Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Are we to belive that the 2002 report from the graduate assistant was the first such allegation that Paterno had been made aware of? I strongly suspect that Paterno was aware of the 1998 allegation and many more. Additionally, he was in a position to make personal observations.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I hope that's not the case, but you may very well be right.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  14. Bob McFart

    Many farts were cut

    November 11, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Dan

      and much fudge was packed

      November 11, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, shut up, you morons.

      November 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.