Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal: From the Start, a Risk Management Nightmare
In spite of its stellar reputation as an educational institution, Penn State failed to communicate and execute the most rudimentary risk management protocols in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, risk management experts say.
With a timeline dating back to 1994, when Penn State defensive line coach Jerry Sandusky launched The Second Mile nonprofit program for at-risk boys, multiple incidents of alleged sexual abuse went unreported to the appropriate authorities, resulting in a situation where liability escalated from potentially damaging to devastating—with the university and even third parties now potentially liable.
“It’s shocking that somehow the real values professed by the institution—which after all, is in the business of kids—weren’t followed,” said Kevin Ribble, executive vice president of management liability specialists Edgewater Holdings Ltd. and president of Comply America Inc.
“Many organizations refuse to believe their colleagues are capable of such heinous acts so they won’t see the signs. They start out with denial but when confronted with reality, start to get defensive,” said Melanie Herman, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, a national resource organization that advises nonprofits on a wide array of risk and liability issues, including child abuse prevention. “The best organizations recognize that the better course is to confront it and think about they could do to prevent it in the future.”
A key risk management tenet—whether an incident involves sexual abuse, sexual harassment or a dangerous condition in a facility—is to investigate any allegations, Herman said. “Everyone in the organization must take it seriously, and every organization has an obligation to look into allegations. If you see something and it’s ignored, an organization is far more likely to be held personally liable in the long run because you ignored the condition or report.”
And because The Second Mile is a nonprofit that is technically not sponsored by Penn State, the organizations directors and officers, and even its corporate sponsors, might now be held liable, Ribble said.
The common thread in all the reported incidents is that none of the witnesses seem to have known where and how to legally report them, Ribble said. According to the timeline, Sandusky had been caught in sexually compromising positions with underage boys in 1998, when a boy’s mother reported her suspicions to university police; in 2000, when a school janitor witnessed Sandusky with another boy; and in 2002, when a graduate assistant witnessed yet a third incident.
In the latter two incidents, which witnesses reported to their supervisors and ultimately to Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, university employees should have known that under law they are required to report suspected incidents of child abuse to the appropriate family services authority, Ribble said. “If you see something that might lead to the harm of a child, you’re obligated by law to report to family services or the police, and if it’s an emergency, to dial 911. So nobody followed the rules, but from bottom up, reporting requirements that should be insisted upon were violated.”