I have defended Mike McQueary, the graduate student assistant coach who, according to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s report, witnessed Jerry Sandusky raping a young boy in the Penn State showers in 2002 and told Joe Paterno, to this extent: he took the crucial step of reporting the incident to the coach, his boss as a graduate student assistant coach, and that took courage. Because of Paterno’s reputation as a moral and ethical exemplar, the young man had no reason to believe that Paterno would not do all the right things, from confronting Sandusky to finding the boy to alerting the police. (As we now know, Paterno did none of these.)
Even so, he had to believe he was in a career jeopardizing situation. Sandusky was a Penn State football legend, though retired, and presumably had Paterno’s loyalty. Would being the messenger that created liability and public relations problems for his boss’s beloved football program make McQueary a pariah even if it resulted in Sandusky’s arrest? That scenario is not uncommon, unfortunately.
That is why, when a commenter wrote that McQueary was more culpable for Penn State’s inaction than Paterno, I disagreed strenuously, and I still do. Paterno had power, given his iconic status, perhaps the ultimate power. If he had insisted that Sandusky be confronted, removed, and reported to police, it would have happened, and would have happened completely within his natural sphere of influence. For McQueary, however, to track the university’s response and independently take action to stop Sandusky would require exemplary valor. I wish he had done it. But he had placed his faith in Joe Paterno, and at Penn State, that should be a sure bet.
I think it is easy for any of us to conclude that in Joe Paterno’s place, we would not have allowed Sandusky to continue preying on young boys. What would we do in Mike McQueary’s position, however…putting aside the action of physically intervening in the rape itself? There is a reason why the first thing he did was to go home and call his dad for advice. He never, never considered what he would do in such a situation, because never, in his wildest dreams, did he imaging such a crisis occurring.
Never underestimate the difficulty of making the right ethical decision in an unexpected crisis.
I also sympathize with McQueary, because I had my own Mike McQueary moment years ago.
I was 35, and had been out of work for 8 months, looking hard. Nothing much else was going right in my life either, but a good job would do a lot to turn things around, and I found one when I had a terrific interview with the acting Executive Director of a large trade foundation. He created a new position tailored to my experience and interests. He would be my direct supervisor, and we hit it off immediately.
Then, after only a week on the job, his secretary came into my office and closed the door. I was her only hope, she said; my boss (and hers) was beloved—and powerful— in the association, and nobody else would help her. He had been harassing her, she said, pushing hard for her to sleep with him. She liked him…he was over 60, with an invalid wife, and she felt sorry for him…but she didn’t want to submit, and the pressure was driving her crazy. If it didn’t stop, she said, she might just quit, and as a single mother, she really needed the job.
She wanted me to report her dilemma to the general counsel, my boss’s best friend on staff, on her behalf, to see if he would take the initiative and address the problem without her having to take official action.
And I did. The general counsel made it clear to me that she would have to file a complaint herself for him to take action, and “he didn’t advise it.” He said he would keep our conversation confidential, but that nothing was going to happen. I told her about the meeting, and she quit a few weeks later.
In four years, a major sexual harassment scandal involving my boss broke out, and he was fired and ruined. Apparently, in the interim, he had harassed more than a dozen female employees, and had sex with more than a few. I ultimately had to testify against him, and he never spoke to me after that.
My dilemma those many years ago had much in common with McQueary’s plight. I was fearful about my own job security, and was in a precarious state professionally. Being aligned against my patron and supervisor, who, like Paterno, was regarded as the dean of the staff, was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to help the young woman who had come to me for help, but I also felt that it was unfair that I, as a brand new hire, suddenly was being made responsible for solving an association personnel problem not of my making. I took action, but not enough action.
And I was wrong. I had an ethical duty to follow up when it became clear that the general counsel wasn’t going to act. I needed to make sure, to the best of my ability, that the woman who had come to me for help, and future potential victims of my boss, my friend, a workplace predator, were protected, and it was clear, or should have been, that if I didn’t do anything about it, nobody would.
It was a lesson that I vowed to remember: when fate puts you in the situation where you are the one person who can right a wrong, the fact that it wasn’t your fault is irrelevant, and is no excuse for not fixing the problem. The likely disruption to my job and danger to my career? Too bad. I had to make sure that the serial harasser stopped hurting people. Instead, I allowed myself to rationalize that I had done all I was obligated to do.
Just like Mike McQueary.