In one of the final chapters of a scandal that broke in 2011, former Penn State President Graham Spanier just completed a two-month prison term for having failed to report an incident of sexual abuse to child protective services (“CPS”).
The conviction arises out of a 2001 incident in which Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was seen engaging in sexual contact with a boy in a locker room shower. Shortly thereafter, Spanier exchanged a series of emails with the college’s vice president and its athletic director. The athletic director recommended refraining from reporting the incident to CPS and instead talking to Sandusky and offering him “professional help” to try to cure his pedophilia. Spanier responded that he was supportive of this “humane and reasonable way to proceed” and went on to write:
“The only downside for us is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it. But that can be assessed down the road.”
Spanier never did report the shower incident to CPS, and Sandusky went on to molest more boys over the following decade.
Every state in the U.S. has a mandated reporter law that requires certain categories of people to report known or suspected child abuse to CPS or the police. In some states, such as California and Pennsylvania, the failure to report is a crime, typically a misdemeanor. California case law holds that there is also civil liability for the failure to report. Alejo v. City of Alhambra (1999) 75 Cal.App.4th 1180, 1184-90.
In 2017, a jury convicted Spanier (who had been Penn State’s President for 16 years) of one count of endangering the welfare of a child, and by this summer his appeals had run their course. His lawyer called the two-month prison sentence “callous” in light of Spanier’s age, his “serious health conditions” and the risk of contracting COVID in prison. But it is impossible to overstate the symbolic importance of Spanier’s imprisonment.
One of the basic policy justifications behind the mandated reporter laws is to put in the hands of trained professionals (such as CPS social workers and police officers) the task of evaluating the credibility of child abuse reports and determining the appropriate response. Those who work with and supervise the alleged perpetrator are always going to have a profound conflict of interest, stemming from their relationship with that person and their desire to protect the organization for whom they work. Therefore, the proper role for these individuals is to simply report any suspected abuse, not to conduct the child abuse investigations themselves.
The negative effects of that conflict of interest can clearly be seen at work in the Penn State emails. While it is human nature to want to give your co-worker the benefit of the doubt and to seek to avoid the embarrassment and stress of a CPS investigation, acting on that impulse means completely missing the whole point of the mandated reporter law: protecting vulnerable children who have no way of protecting themselves.
Spanier knew what the law required and knew that he and Penn State would be “vulnerable for not having reported” Sandusky’s abuse. He nevertheless chose to roll the dice and risk the safety of children who might come into contact with Sandusky in the future. He got off easy with two months in prison.
Hopefully, Spanier’s fate will send the message loud and clear, and far and wide, that there is never any excuse for failing to report suspected child abuse and that no one is too important to escape the consequences of such a crime.