Editorials

Sex abuse: Paterno's inaction can't be ignored

Sex abuse

Oh, you're right; it is unseemly to speak ill of the dead. But I'm making an exception for the winningest coach in college football, the beloved icon, secular saint and pedophile supporter Joe Paterno.

Joe Pa made plenty of exceptions in his time, after all, covering up for his players in matters large and small, and quite directly permitting his former defensive coordinator, child rapist Jerry Sandusky, to carry right on ruining young lives.

Ahead of former FBI director Louis Freeh's report on Penn State's handling of the Sandusky scandal, CNN has reported that emails between Paterno, fired school president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz suggest that it was Joe Pa who talked the others out of reporting Sandusky to the authorities. The Paterno family has countered that the emails are misleading and the story a smear.

But even if that's true, Joe Paterno's own words, under oath, in grand jury testimony he gave Dec. 16, are damning enough.

Because here's what Paterno, who died in January at age 85, told the grand jury that Penn State former quarterback Mike McQueary had told him, after driving to his home on a Saturday morning in February 2001: “Well, he had seen a person, an older — not an older, but a mature person who was fondling, whatever you might call it — I'm not sure what the term would be — a young boy.”

Asked if he'd ever had a man named Jerry Sandusky in his employ, Paterno responded, ”I did for a while, yes.” Which is true; Sandusky only worked for him for 30 years. So who was this “mature person” fondling someone in the showers?

“Jerry Sandusky, who had been one of our coaches,” but had retired in 1999. That is, a year after an investigation of another report about Sandusky molesting boys in the team shower went nowhere.

Asked to say more about the so-called fondling incident he'd been told about in 2001, Paterno said, “Well, I don't know what you would call it. Obviously, he was doing something of a sexual nature. I'm not sure exactly what it was. I didn't push Mike to describe exactly what it was because he was very upset. Obviously, I was in a little bit of a dilemma since Mr. Sandusky was not working for me anymore. So I told — I didn't go any further than that except I knew Mike was upset and I knew some kind of inappropriate action was being taken by Jerry Sandusky with a youngster.”

And how quickly did he pass on this info to a living soul? Oh, not right away, he said, because “it was a Saturday morning and I didn't want to interfere with their weekends.”

Which, unlike Sandusky's victims, went on unmolested.

At some point in the next week, he said, he did call his athletic director, Tim Curley, and as he remembered it, said, “Hey, we got a problem.”

Asked if that was the only time he'd heard anything of the sort about Sandusky, Paterno replied, “I think you said something about a rumor. It may have been discussed in my presence, something else about somebody. I don't know.”

And did he tell anyone else? “No, because I figured that Tim would handle it appropriately.”

He didn't, as we now know. And if you want unseemly, you should have been in the courtroom last month where eight young men testified about what Sandusky had done to them. Though eight members of the jury had close ties to Penn State, those young men were believed, too, and 68-year-old Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts of child sex abuse over the course of 15 years.

Yet for more than a decade after Paterno admitted he'd heard all about Sandusky's M.O., the coach did nothing beyond that one call to his AD.

For the next decade, whenever Paterno saw Sandusky with the boys he continued to troll for through his charity — and continued to ply with access to Penn State's football program — did Paterno not ever think about what he'd been told?

Was he untroubled when he saw Sandusky with other youngsters, sitting on the bench and hanging out on the sidelines during games? Around Penn State, Paterno is revered still; Joe Pa did nothing wrong and everything right, I was told time and again during Sandusky's recent trial.

Unfortunately, that's an attitude that can only lead to more of the same. That is, to more “humane” treatment of predators at the expense of children. To more misguided Joe Pa worship at the expense of the truth. And even more deference to such lame excuses as the one about the sacrosanct weekend, during which school officials apparently shouldn't have to hear any unwelcome news.

If children are ever to be protected, however, and other such scandals prevented, the answer isn't better cover-ups, but more transparency, and all that Joe Paterno did and did not do has to be acknowledged.

Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post politics writer and anchors the paper's “She the People” blog.

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