You know the old saw: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Utah political leaders can and should learn a hard lesson by the fall of the Penn State community, its academic leaders and its legendary football program – including the late coach Joe Paterno.
An independent report on the crimes and cover-up was conducted for the university by former FBI director Louis Freeh.
You can read the report here.
This finding sticks out to me: “One of the most challenging of the tasks confronting the Penn State community is transforming the culture that permitted (former assistant coach Jerry) Sandusky’s behavior, as illustrated throughout this report, and which directly contributed to the failure of Penn State’s most powerful leaders to adequately report and respond to the actions of a serial sexual predator.”
We can only hope that some real changes are coming to Penn State.
But don’t necessarily count on it.
Several new university board members actually ran for their elected positions promising to clear the name of Paterno – despite all the evidence that Paterno knew about the allegations against Sandusky and at the very least washed his hands of those charges.
The report finds that Paterno likely intervened to stop the allegations from going public for fear it would harm his own reputation and that of his football program and Penn State at large.
Money, power and national recognition. Paterno brought all to Penn State through his football program.
The coach was untouchable, it seemed, during life. And now even in death – Paterno died late last year from cancer – State College citizens are still denying what he did and didn’t do.
It’s easy to say that this terrible Penn State situation has no real bearing on us or Utah.
But we are not immune to powerful people taking liberties with their positions.
While not accusing anyone with the serious crimes of child sexual abuse, nor making that direct comparison, I can recall when Utah officials faced the problem of a very powerful man who refused to be held accountable for his actions.
I speak of the late federal judge Willis Ritter, who may not be remember by many Utahns today. (You can read more about Ritter in this 2007 Utah Bar article.)
But back in the 1960s and 1970s, Ritter was a law unto himself on Utah’s federal bench.
There are all kinds of stories about Ritter’s actions – from trying to order a TV cameraman’s arrest when he pushed a camera in Ritter’s face late one night outside the courthouse, to Ritter being the most overturned trial judge in America for several years running.
Ritter was known for imperial and odd courtroom behavior, yelling at attorneys, banning people from his courtroom and reportedly swiveling his large chair around on his dais, his back to the courtroom, and dosing off as attorneys droned on.
Under the antiquated federal court system of that day, as senior judge Ritter got to assign all the cases (he took many of the most important ones for himself). But then important cases would go unheard or undecided for months.
To his credit, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, after he was first elected in 1976 took it upon himself to get more federal judges appointed in Utah, and with those numbers Ritter lost his control of the federal bench here.
When Ritter died in 1978 the Salt Lake Tribune wrote a glowing A1 “obituary” that was more flatter than fact – since Ritter was considered by many non-Mormons in Utah as a federal counterweight to the influence of the LDS Church in local society.
The point here is that Ritter, like Paterno, had become too powerful, a man who in his town who had little counter-balance to his influence.
Ritter abused it in federal court like Paterno abused it in State College.
While Penn State trustees ultimately fired Paterno, no one but the U.S. Congress could fire Ritter. Federal judges then served for life and could only be removed via impeachment by Congress.
There actually was some talk about trying to impeach Ritter. But that must come through malfeasance in office, and while Ritter was bizarre and tyrannical, he wasn’t a crook.
The crap that Ritter got away with 50 years ago may not be allowed today – we may well believe.
But then we see what has happened at Penn State.
And we are reminded that abuse of power, no matter where it is found or in what society it flourishes, is a warning to us all.
There but for the grace of God – and maybe some very tough rules and regulations – go we.
And we see once again, when men and women of good will fail to act – and allow themselves to be bullied and silenced -- really bad things can happen.