Power and Accountability


By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor

With great power comes great responsibility.

In the past few weeks Americans have been treated to two highly publicized examples of men who have abused their positions of power and refused to accept responsibility.  The first, and most egregious, is the sad story of Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno who, when presented with clear evidence of a horrific crime, failed to take positive action to stop the abuse.  The second is Presidential candidate Herman Cain, who has been accused multiple times of sexual harassment toward women subordinate to him.

On the surface, these two cases may seem like night and day.  After all, one concerns terrible crimes against children, while the other is about an adult behaving like a child toward other adults.  But in reality both cases, and the public reaction to them, speak volumes about society and how we deal with authority figures.

In the unfolding Greek tragedy of Joe Paterno, what we have is a man who was made aware of a terrible crime and did nothing to stop it.  When a graduate assistant brought to his attention that Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was molesting boys under his care, instead of dealing with the problem immediately by removing Sandusky from his position of trust and starting an investigation, Paterno punted.  He reported the crime to university officials above him, who also failed to take action.  As a result, a long and distinguished career was brought to an ignominious end last week and Paterno, his staff, and many of the officials who passed the buck were removed from their jobs.

When news of Paterno’s firing reached the streets of State College, PA., students rioted – supposedly in “support” of Paterno.  Sure, the guy gave multiple passes to a sex offender, but there’s an important game this weekend – can’t it wait?  Apparently the transient morality of football is more important than the fundamental amorality of child abuse.  The rioters’ reactions to the case and Paterno’s firing was yet another betrayal of a man who mentored so many in a long and distinguished career.

The case of Herman Cain, while significantly less egregious, may be equally sad.  Here we have a man who is seeking the ultimate approval of his fellow citizens, that he be given the privelege of leading them as president.  He has also been alleged to have engaged in sexually suggestive or harassing behavior with women subordinate to him during his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.  While Cain has been outspoken in his criticism of his alleged victims, the victims themselves are legally barred from speaking publicly about the incidents, which is highly convenient for Cain.

Cain’s wife recently made public statements saying he “totally respects women.”  His respect was on clear display this past weekend at the most recent Republican debate when he referred to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “princess Nancy.”  Cain’s supporters have, like the students at Penn State, rallied behind him even as his campaign begins its slow painful crash and burn.  In response to the allegations his campaign managers have warned other accusers to “think twice” about coming forward.

Silencing the victim is a time-honored tactic of abusers, particularly abusers in positions of power.  In the case of Joe Paterno, the victims were silenced by his refusal to take the action he had the power and authority to take, when the crime was brought to his attention.  Now, years later, the physical evidence is long gone and the case is being reduced to one man’s word against another’s.  The price of silence is the reputation of Penn State and his own illustrious career.  In the case of Herman Cain, his victims’ silence was purchased for money, and the legal agreements give him convenient cover to hide behind and take shots from.  Cain’s own colleagues betrayed him by denying his victims their rights to legal redress and buying their silence.

Paterno and Sandusky are finally being held accountable.  Whether Cain faces a similar accounting remains to be seen.