At my seminary, there has been much discussion surrounding the situation at Penn State—understandable, considering that I’m in a class called “Christian Ethics.” While there is no question that sodomizing ten-year-old at-risk boys is utterly reprehensible and unforgiveable, the matter of the coach not pursuing the issue raises questions of whether he had a moral obligation to do so, even if there was no law in place to force his hand.
As we’ve been hashing this argument out for the past two weeks, I keep remembering something Dr. Sharon Tan said in class on October 7th:
The law gives voice to the lowest common denominator of social behavior; it provides a baseline. People start thinking that they are living a “good life” as long as they don’t get in trouble with the law. Yet the law of secular government doesn’t take into account the “moral law,” or the law of kindness. And the laws are not made by the marginalized….
So perhaps Paterno toed the line. Maybe he fulfilled the letter of his duty, thinking that this meant he was “being good.” But in doing so, he only obeyed the lowest possible rule of “acceptable” social behavior. The main argument I’ve heard in reaction to this is that he had a higher law, a moral law, to live up to. Some have called it the “natural law,” saying that nowhere in nature is it permissible to rape children. I would call it, rather, the moral imperative. We each have a calling—inescapable, compelling—that commands us to live up to our highest ideals. The moral imperative demands our best, and points our minds and hearts in the direction of right relationship. To refuse to live up to the moral imperative is to fracture our humanity.
Paterno did not live up to the moral imperative. This is what has people riled up. He had an ethical obligation to report this matter further than he actually did. He failed in his larger responsibility as a role model and as a hero.
The question that has been bothering me is this: If Paterno, who was not involved in the crime itself, had a moral imperative to report the situation, did the victims, as direct witnesses, have a moral imperative as well? And if so, what is it that their moral imperative would compel them to do?
I realize this is a very sensitive subject, and it is not at all my intention to cast any blame whatsoever on the victims who have suffered the aftermath of these horrendous crimes. And I know that my question will likely trigger some emotional responses, many of which will not actually be typed out in response to this post. In an effort to move the discussion away from the Penn State situation, let me change the parameters by offering a different scenario:
Many of my classmates have taken Introduction to Pastoral Care with Rev. Dr. Bob Albers. On the last day of class, we were shown a video to teach us about the power dynamics that can lead to sexual misconduct. While the outfits were outdated and the acting was bad, I still found myself profoundly moved and disturbed by the end of the film.
In the movie, young woman comes forward to report that she had had sexual relations with her internship supervisor several years ago. She had kept silent until now, but felt obliged to speak up when her former supervisor came up for a promotion that would set him up as a figure with even more power, and she fears that he would abuse that power by taking advantage of more women. As the movie continues, we learn that this supervisor has taken advantage of other women—one had been in an unhappy relationship, and he offered her comfort and understanding; another woman had thought she and the man were dating with the intent to marry, but he kept offering excuses for her to keep their relationship a secret. All three women thought at the time that it was consensual, but later came to realize that he had abused the power of his position to manipulate them into having sexual relations with him.
In this scenario, it was one of the victims who came forward; she acted upon a moral imperative, desiring to protect any additional women from coming into contact with this man. The other two women did not come forward on their own, but agreed to tell their stories after the first woman led the way.
So do victims have a moral imperative? If so, what is it? Are they obligated to come forward? Are they obligated to focus on healing themselves in the aftermath of the abuse? Do they have a moral imperative at all?
It is a complicated question, and I don’t know if there is an answer. I look over the list of virtues listed in our textbook—Temperance, Courage, Prudence, Justice, Faith, Hope, Love. Which ones are triggered by the moral imperative? And if a victim were to act upon some or all of these virtues, following a moral imperative, what would those actions look like?
I suspect victims ask themselves these questions, and my guess is that they have an even more difficult time finding an answer that they can live with than someone would who is not involved in their situation.