Friday, November 18, 2011

Penn State, Joe Paterno, and the Meaning of Justice

Papa Joe is gone; fired from his job as head football coach at Penn State University. Allegations abound of criminal sexual misconduct involving a minor child on the part of an assistant coach, and a cover up of those criminal actions on the part of college administrators. Did I mention the president of PSU was also fired?

The reactions to this whole sordid affair have been pretty intense as one would expect given the emotional punch that sexual abuse of children rightly generates in our culture. As usually happens in these and similar cases, the popular sentiment is the alleged perpetrator is obviously guilty, the school also obviously guilty, and burning at the stake is to lenient a sentence for perpetrators of such atrocities. It is very easy to let the heat of emotion have rule and sway over our comments on this disgusting sordid affair, and for that heat and emotion to color our sense of what justice in this case should look like.

What I want to do in this post is step back from the emotion and heat of the Penn State scandal, and take a look at some of aspects of what justice is that should temper our heat and emotion as we view this affair.

Foremost and fundamentally justice is about truth. Justice is not about what allegedly happened, or about what you and I think happened, but about what actually empirically did happen. Justice is not based on what is reported in the news media, or on what you or I choose to believe happened. That is why in our court system we have rules about what evidence and testimony can be given in any specific judicial court case.

Justice is about culpability and having the consequence of criminal actions involve an accountability for those actions that is in measure with the nature of the criminal activity. The determining of culpability defines guilt or degree of guilt. We are answering the question of who is to be held accountable for what happened, and taking measure of what the appropriate consequence should be. A side caution to the question of culpability is that of guilt by association. We don't hold the bank robber's children accountable for the father's crime, even though there are secondary consequences the children will suffer as a result.

Justice is also about protecting the innocent; the innocent victims, and the innocent accused. The victim requires justice for the loss suffered. Justice says the innocent are to be acquitted when falsely accused. We also need to again look at the issue of guilt by association. In the above example, the bank robber's children are innocent and not considered as being guilty of the crime of the father.

It gets a little complicated doesn't it?

There is a lot more that could be said for these three aspects of justice and there may be other aspects that could be mentioned.

So what are some conclusions we can draw from this discussion?

A lot of innocent people; students, PSU athletes, faculty, alumni, staff, parents, taxpayers, PSU sports fans, and etc. are and will be to one degree or another impacted by this scandal. Justice would say we need to cut them a break, and avoid guilt by association. It also means we need to give the PSU community room and time to heal and move on, while at the same time giving the victims due and full justice. That will take some real wisdom.

Our statements of opinion on the affair need to be tempered by the fact that all we are hearing about this is from secondary and tertiary sources, and as such is hearsay. It may prove to be true hearsay, but it is still hearsay.

If in the course of investigation the allegations are proven true, all those guilty and culpable need to be made to answer in proportion to the degree of their specific guilt and culpability.

All involved; victims, innocent PSU community members, and the guilty need our prayers. With a understanding of all that justice means, we can't go wrong in praying that justice will be done in the Penn State scandal.

"But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

~ Amos 5:24

[Side Note: The context of my interest in the Penn State scandal is through my alma mater Michigan State University's association with Penn State in the Big Ten conference. The ripples of the scandal reach to all Big Ten schools; just ask Nebraska who played a conference football game with Penn State at Penn State just a few days after Paterno's firing. ]

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