Can We Prevent Another Penn State?

We may not be able to legislate responsibility, but we certainly can try

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Gene J. Puskar / AP

Penn State's Cody Castor (96) and Adrian Amos (4) kneel in pre-game prayer with teammates on Nov. 12.

Life can be murky. What Mike McQueary testified that he saw in the showers at Penn State in 2002 was not: the rape of a young boy by Jerry Sandusky was a clear and unequivocal instance of evil.

McQueary was an eyewitness to a crime. Yet he needed only to tell his superior, not the police or any public authority, to fulfill his obligations under current Pennsylvania law. The governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, told David Gregory on Meet the Press yesterday that he believed changes in the law were coming soon. It’s too late for Sandusky’s victims — he has been charged with 40 counts involving eight boys — but new requirements may help others. Which is something, at least.

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Much has been (and will be) said and written about the culture of big-time college sports and the adulatory ethos that enveloped Joe Paterno, who pulled a McQueary and just reported the incident up the chain of the university instead of doing something as basic as call the police. The fact that he did not do so is an indictment of his own character. The fact that he was not required to do so speaks poorly of a national patchwork of reporting laws that give too many people — including McQueary and Paterno — room to do the wrong thing. Yesterday, Gov. Tom Corbett expressed support of an overhaul of the state’s laws on how allegations of abuse are reported within institutions and to outside authorities.

Which raises a question: how do we legislate responsibility? Or, more precisely, can we legislate responsibility?

The world-weary answer is no — that no law, no statute, can make people do the right thing if they do not want to do the right thing. This is the Hobbesian view: strife is the natural state of mankind, and any effort designed to ameliorate the harshness of reality is doomed.

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Yet life need not be only nasty, brutish and short. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world. No single law or regulation will bring about temporal perfection, but a central purpose of the state — of society — is the protection of the weak and the encouragement of the good. The right kind of reporting laws, coupled with genuine sanction, may make the next McQueary do the right thing. One thing is clear: we should try.