The verdict has been passed, and Jerry Sandusky is going to prison. Few people had heard of Mr. Sandusky’s non-profit, The Second Mile, before he was charged with molesting some of the same children he claimed the organization was helping. This tragedy has destroyed families, lives, and the public’s view of one of America’s most famous colleges. It is impossible to understate the damage that has been done. Penn State has been shaken to it’s core, Joe “JoePa” Peterno has died in disgrace, Mr. Sandusky has been effectively given a life sentence, and the young men wounded by Sandusky will be picking up the shattered pieces of their lives for many years to come. There is no silver lining to this story.
On the gates of the Dachau concentration camp, there is a a memorial with a message written in five languages. It simply reads:
Let the Penn State tragedy serve as a marker in history that reminds leaders of the horrendous cost of viewing other humans as disposable, or a means to an end… but will we as leaders work to make sure this never happens again?
Unfortunately, tragedies like the one surrounding Jerry Sandusky happen far too often. Leaders of ministries and non-profits often foolishly their organization is somehow insulated from this type of crime. There are very few leaders who not only understand that it can happen to their organization, and there are even fewer who have taken any sort of steps to prevent it.
If you’re a leader of a ministry, non-profit, or any other type of organization that works with young people, here are ten things you must consider so that you can move your organization into a bright and healthy future:
1. Stop believing it can’t happen to you.
All youth leaders need to do an honest and thorough assessment of their ministry. Not only to protect themselves, but also the well-being of the kids and parents who they love and serve.
Jerry Sandusky began the non-profit The Second Mile (where the abuses took place) in 1977, and I do not doubt that it was originally birthed from a heart of compassion for underprivileged children, but what went wrong? Jerry Sandusky began the group with good intentions, but with little accountability, his leadership went unchecked, ultimately ending in tragedy.
Most leaders have good intentions, but an unbalanced and unchecked confidence in the impossibility tragedy virtually guarantees its occurrence.
2. Does your organization have any “second-class citizens?”
Is anyone in your church or non-profit more important than another? If you replied “no,” does that include leaders as well? Healthy organizations know that even the youngest child has incredible value. Healthy leaders do not forget this. They write it on their wall, and they tattoo it on their arm. No child, no person, is unimportant. There are no disposable lives.
“Do we perceive men and women as persons, or as commodities? Are people of irreplaceable dignity, or are they expendable before the alters of planned obsolescence, competition, ideology, and vested interest? -John F. Kavanaugh Following Christ in a Consumer Society
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. – Matthew 8:16
Men like Sandusky and Paterno were seen as “untouchable” leaders, and their leadership often went unchecked, and unquestioned. When allegations were initially raised (almost ten years ago before Sandusky’s indictment) those allegations were quietly hushed, because Sandusky was too important to the athletic program at Penn State.
Clearly the lives of the young boys Sandusky was raping came a distant second to the maintaining of Penn State’s good name, and even more so, the names Sandusky and Paterno. There is no clearer indictment of this polemic than that of Pensilvania attourney general Linda Kelly:
“Despite a powerful eyewitness statement about the sexual assault of a child, this incident was not reported to any law enforcement or child protective agency, as required by Pennsylvania law…additionally, there is no indication that anyone from the university ever attempted to learn the identity of the child who was sexually assaulted on their campus or made any follow-up effort to obtain more information from the person who witnessed the attack firsthand.”
3. In your organization, is leadership is a team effort?
Nobody goes it alone! Any organization that hinges on one leader… is an unhealthy organization. Logistically, if the key leader quits or dies, will the ministry or non-profit collapse? The Second Mile placed an unhealthy amount of value on Jerry Sandusky. The Second Mile was Jerry Sandusky. When he was indicted, The Second Mile quickly imploded… and closed their doors for good.
Most churches and non-profits have some type of board of directors or elder board, but how often are they active and informed? Churches need to have elders who are knowledgeable, prayerful, involved, and passionate about the health of the church, it’s leadership, and it’s parishioners.
Every lead pastor or CEO of any organization should know that they can not simply get away with anything. Their leadership is not dictatorial, and their actions have consequences as well. They can and will be fired. They can and will be prosecuted.
If you’re a volunteer at a church, ministry, or non-profit, and you see that most (if not all) of the power is held by one person, you need to leave it immediately. Disaster is immanent.
4. You may know yourself, but do you really know your students?
Any veteran leader can probably tell you stories of being “hit on,” or inappropriately spoken to by a younger person. Some individuals have a history of being abused, and many have never had a healthy relationship with the opposite (or same) sex. In fact, many are so wounded that they don’t have the first clue of how to interact with the opposite sex, and that interaction to not be sexual. They are simply repeating the same tragic patterns they were taught.
Just because something didn’t happen, does not mean that someone won’t brag to their friends that it did. In a world where young people are so often neglected, some resort to the mindset that “an attention, even negative attention, is attention I want.” This quickly leaders to my next question:
5. Is your organization a safe place for your staff as well?
Staff and volunteers need to know that they are cared about. They need to know that if they are accused, the organization will seek to protect both the staff and their family. The organization commits to not react emotionally, but will calmly weigh the evidence, and will not abandon or publicly humiliate staff members, when seeking a scapegoat.
Jerry Sandusky could have been saved. He could have talked with someone he trusted with the temptations he was facing, but it could possibly be that he did not feel safe to do so.
Staff may approach you admission of temptation. This needs to be applauded. Temptation is part of human existence, but crime is never tolerated. When staff feel safe, and the organization is committed to the health of that staff, disaster can be avoided.
Healthy organizations tell it’s staff: “If you need counseling, we’ll get you counseling. If you need intervention, we’ll see you get that to. We love you. We care about you. We want to see you’re healthy.”
An organization committed to the health of their staff and volunteers will be a healthy organization over all.
If a staff member approaches you with a struggle of an type, they should be loved, embraced, and encouraged… not embarrassed. They should know that their struggles will be kept in confidence and that you’ll see that they get healing. That staff may have to quietly step back from an active role, but they will not be abandoned, and this option is far better than public tragedy.
6. Do your staff know they are safe… but not untouchable?
In the last section I used the word “temptation.” Everyone gets tempted in various ways- it’s part of being a human. What is not applauded, welcomed, or tolerated… is hiding.
“You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.” – Genesis 4.7
If staff members hide their temptations, and those temptations turn into actions that violate the well-being of another person or the organization, they will be fired and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Staff need to know that there will be zero tolerance for violating another person’s dignity, rights, or personhood. It does not matter what role that staff plays in the organization; they will be punished.
There is no tolerance, no cover-ups, and no excuses for behavior that hurts other people.
Staff need to know that it can happen to them. Nobody is immune to failure. Life can not be lived successfully without community, and without the support of others. If they think they can defeat destructive patterns in their lives alone, or through simple will-power, they have lied to themselves, and are headed toward failure.
Simply put, your staff need to know that if they hide their temptations and struggles, and hurt someone else, the organization will not protect them from the negative consequences of their behavior.
7. Do you believe that cover-ups never work? Do you believe that if you know something, but do nothing, you are as guilty as the perpetrator.
In 2002, assistant coach Mike McQueary was the eye-witness to Sandusky literally raping a ten-year-old boy. He reported the incient to Joe Paterno, who then informed the Penn State athletic director. Ultimately, the issue was basically swept under the rug. Sandusky was simply too important to the school, and to The Second Mile. Nine years later, those complacent parties are facing perjury charges and failure to report suspected child abuse. “JoePa” died shortly afterwards, and will forever have his legacy amended with an account of failure to protect multiple children.
Even if your cover-up “works,” you will know that you were complacent in the face of tragedy.
8. Which would you choose? To deal pain and hurt now, or deal with it later… greatly magnified?
What if those abused were your children? Would you have wanted the staff to have done something?
Bishop Eddie Long was recently accused of being sexually inappropriate toward members of his Atlanta megachurch. The sexual relationships were not illegal, as none of the the participants were minors, but they were certainly embarrassing. Long and his church were sued over the scandal, and days after the story broek, Long told his church:
Later, it was revealed that his “throwing stones” involved paying an undisclosed amount to quietly settle the case.
This attempt by Long’s church to cover his philandry seem silly. Everyone knows that a settlement-induced hushing is barely a cover-up at all.
Eddie Long continues to operate as head pastor, CEO, and master of his church, and we have not heard the last of him.
9. Do you believe that background checks are important, but even more so, relationship?
Jerry Sandusky would have passed a background check. In fact, many abusers do.That is certainly not an excuse to not run them on staff; is a still an important gate in the interview process to not only screen people with histories of abuse, but it also sends a message to staff and parents that this organization takes the safety of children seriously.
Alone, background checks are not enough. Those checks should be paired with a lengthy interview, a probationary period while a relationship with the staff member is cultivated. Good leaders value their staff, and know them personally. Do you have potential volunteers over for dinner? Out to coffee… multiple times? I have personally volunteered for a ministry in which I did not step on stage until I had been involved for over a year.
Many predators who prey on young people are not being willing to be in an open relationship for over a year before ever being able to work with kids. They have too much to hide, and they will never even enter the process.
You should ask yourself which is more important: Simply “getting the organization going,” or that the staff are well-connected, well-trained, and fully trusted? I had a volunteer like that once. Her name is Jeri. She is the most consistent, trustworthy, and hard-working volunteer I’ve ever worked with. I would take one Jeri over 20 volunteers with questionable integrity or flaky habits.
10. Most of all, do you believe that your integrity is paramount?
“A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” – Proverbs 22:1
“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” – Ephesians 5:3
Case in point: Jerry Sandusky showered with some of the children in his non-profit.
How could this happen?
Was there never a point where this behavior raised alarm? Mr. Sandusky should have never been alone in that room. Even if the molestation never occurred, it clearly leaves the door open for the accusation.
Here are some quick guidelines for leaders:
1. Do you make sure the door was always open to your office when talking with a student, no matter what the sex or sexual preference of the student is?
2.Do you give students rides home? You shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter if you’re a female leader, or a male leader, your integrity is paramount, and in this day and age being totally alone with a student, no matter what their sex or sexual preference, is to invite accusation.
3. If you need to meet someone privately, do you do it in a public place? An ice cream shop, a taco bell, or in your office- with the door open, and when the building has other people in it?
It is not “cutting edge” to risk your organization, your future, and your family- simply because you do not want to be inconvenienced.
In the end, when you stand before parents, students, God, and your bathroom mirror, can you say that you did everything you can to protect others? If the long-term viability of your organization is important to you, you’ll consider these ten questions. They might not only save your organization from tragedy, but most importantly, will encourage the safety and protection of the innocent.
What are your thoughts?
What do you think churches and organizations can and should do that prevents future abuses from happening?
Where have you seen this type of integrity practiced?
Where have you seen it fail?