Prayers and Vigilance Necessary in Wake of Penn State Tragedy

The stunning and tragic events of the past two weeks at Penn State University have reminded all of us of the need for constant vigilance.

They also have prompted parents to question whether they are doing enough to ensure the safety of their children and those of us in organizational leadership positions to ask: “Could it happen here?”

Penn State is described as a large institution with a dominating presence in a small college town, and State College is portrayed as a tightly knit community where many residents work at or attend Penn State and people genuinely feel they are part of an extended family. The people centrally involved in the recent events enjoyed reputations as solid, competent, accomplished professionals – not at all the kind of people to turn a blind eye to child abuse.

Sadly, there are some painful similarities between what we heard last week and the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church.

So what went so terribly wrong? And could something like this happen at a place like St. Thomas?

Asking the question is painful enough, but the answer is even more difficult to utter: “Certainly it could.” No prudent organization can consider itself immune to such tragic occurrences, and the most effective preventative, aside from constant vigilance, probably is to put aside any misplaced notion that such things only happen elsewhere.

Many are weighing in with theories regarding the dynamics that contributed to the Penn State crisis.  In the end, it all comes down to allowing misplaced loyalties to cloud one’s sense of legal, moral and human obligation.

Minnesota Statute 626.556 requires members of certain professions to immediately report maltreatment of minors to the local welfare agency, the agency responsible for assessing or investigating such reports, the police department or county sheriff’s office. With some limited exceptions, the professions legally obligated by this mandatory reporting requirement are those engaged in the healing arts, social services, psychological or psychiatric treatment, child care, education, correctional supervision, probation and correctional services, law enforcement and pastoral ministry. Others may report voluntarily.

It is important to note that an individual who is required but fails to make such a report when circumstances dictate is guilty of a misdemeanor. It is not sufficient for such important matters to be handled simply by the internal policies of a university.

In addition to understanding applicable legal requirements, it is expected that everyone in our university community be familiar with and comply with our Code of Professional Conduct and our Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Policies, and act in accord with our university mission, vision and convictions. Both the law and our “Whistleblower” Policy, adopted in 2008, provide protection from retaliation or reprisal. Whether or not one is legally mandated to report, all members of the St. Thomas community are strongly encouraged to report immediately any child maltreatment or other improper or illegal activity they might observe. We maintain an ethics hotline and an online reporting tool that enable reports to be made anonymously, at or by calling 800-ETHICAL (800-384-4225).

The events at Penn State remind us that we should keep in our prayers the children who have suffered sexual abuse. We should also pray for one another and the St. Thomas community – that we have the courage to maintain the vigilance necessary to keep this from happening here.