Penn State coaches, administrators had moral duty to come forward, UVU prof says

Published: Thursday, Nov. 10 2011 7:33 p.m. MST

In this Sept. 4, 2004 file photo, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno leads his team onto the field before a game against Akron.

Carolyn Kaster, File, AP Photo

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SALT LAKE CITY — Sordid details emerging from the Penn State child sex abuse scandal brought a notion from a Shakespeare play to Elaine Englehardt's mind: "Somewhere near the beginning, I should have stopped this."

Englehardt, a Utah Valley University distinguished professor of ethics, says those involved had a moral obligation to act on the things they saw or were told.

"I can't imagine they didn't realize this was wrong, wrong, wrong, and something that needed to be taken care of immediately," she said.

"To have it happen at a place like Penn State, maybe you just get so wrapped up in the good things that happen that you just want to push a moral problem, a criminal problem under the mat, but you just can't."

Penn State fired legendary football coach Joe Paterno and longtime university President Graham Spanier on Wednesday in the wake of criminal sex abuse charges against a former Paterno assistant. Jerry Sandusky is accused of sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period.

Graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary told Paterno in March 2002 that he saw a former senior assistant coach molesting a young boy in the football building's showers. Paterno shared the information with the school's athletic director, who also informed the university administration. No one told police.

The Pennsylvania state police commissioner told reporters this week that Paterno had a "moral responsibility" to call authorities.

Under Utah law, anyone failing to report child abuse could be charged with a crime.

A witness to child abuse or neglect must "immediately notify the nearest" police officer or agency or the state Division of Child and Family Services, according to state law. Not doing so could result in being charged with a class B misdemeanor. The statute of limitations on class B misdemeanors is two years, but in the case of failing to report child abuse it is four years, said Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings.

At the University of Utah, suspected criminal activity, whether sexual or not, that comes to the administration's attention is reported to campus police, said U. spokesman Remi Barron.

"It's always been that way," Barron said.

What McQueary walked in on is one of those situations no one expects, Englehardt said.

"We just think they're never going to happen to us. We don't ever think we're going to walk into a shower room and see something like that going on," she said.

Nor do we know for sure how we would respond if we happened upon a revered authority figure in an institution dear to our hearts or where we hoped to make a mark. Are we going to do something or hope someone else does?

"When you are the whistleblower, you are seen as much at fault as the person doing the improper action, so there really has to be a strong sense of justice if you walked in and saw something like that," Englehardt said. "Being a whistleblower has detrimental aspects to it. It's too bad that it's not valued more."

The Penn State case, she said, goes beyond moral obligations because it involved a crime. Not only should it have been reported but followed up on as well, she said.

"I think it's very tough when this is something not only morally repugnant but criminal and wasn't taken care of when it should have been," Englehardt said.

Former BYU football coach LaVell Edwards is a good friend of Paterno and regards him highly.

"It's a sad period of time right now to see a man with his credentials, his character and all the other elements that go into it, would have to leave under a heavy cloud as this," he said.

Edwards, who retired in 2000, didn't want to speculate on what Paterno should or shouldn't have done.

"You always had issues you had to deal with, no question about it. Some you do well with, some you don't," he said. "We're all faced with that no matter whether we're coaching or whatever we're doing."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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