One of my biggest fears about the whole Penn State child sex abuse scandal is that in all our sanctimony and schadenfreude, we may be making future situations worse. Particularly in terms of transparency. Now that the NCAA has punished Penn State with massive penalties, I wonder if other institutions, in the future, will allow for independent investigations, create open access for the investigators, and then release the conclusions to the public.
Most people would agree that anyone who abuses a child, youth, or vulnerable adult in anyway should be punished. I think we could also agree that those who shield, enable, or empower abusers should also be held responsible for their actions. An institution such as a university has a duty to hold their constituents responsible for their actions. Our legal system has a duty to hold people responsible when they violate our laws. Punishment is not the problem.
My concern is that at what point does the punishment deter future transparency? What will be the lesson of Penn State? One would hope that it would be to stop abuse as soon as it occurs and to take institutional responsibility for the safety of everyone who comes onto the institution’s premises. The problem might be that institutions might take a different lesson. When the NCAA acts on a report commissioned by Penn State, to punish the institution that has not technically broken NCAA rules, in a manner that is outside the own NCAA’s normal process, in ways that are unprecedented, what will future institutions do when their is a crisis at hand? Will they collaborate with investigators? Will they make their people and records available? Will they commission an independent report?
One person from Penn State has been convicted. Others will probably be tried. Some have been fired or put on leave. Undoubtedly the institution will be sued. The Department of Education might punish the university for breaking federal law. All of this seems appropriate and is the normal ways of trying to deal with the horror of child abuse. No punishment can undo what the abuser did. Appropriate punishment sends a clear signal that we as a society will not stand for child abuse. Too much punishment though and I fear that it will hurt future transparency. Too many people are already afraid of being transparent.
There may be a tipping point in terms of punishment. Appropriate punishment might encourage institutions to do the right thing. If the punishment becomes too heavy, institutions might just have more incentive to hide their dirty laundry, to plead the fifth when testifying, to have documents shredded, emails disappear, and victims discredited. Instead of owning up to problems, the institution might just double down.
Our goal in punishment should not be to feed our baser instincts. I believe it should be to to create environments and systems where children, youth, and vulnerable adults are not abused. Where institutions have a vested interest in protecting children, youth, and vulnerable adults. When abuse does occur to report it. If systemic abuse occurs, to admit a failure in the institutions’s systems and to be transparent about that failure. Too much punishment might create perverse incentives not to be transparent.