Looking away from abuse

Looking away from abuse

November 11th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The controversy over the firing of Penn State's legendary football coach Joe Paterno in the wake of a child abuse scandal involving one of Paterno's former coaches is misplaced. It suggests the very sort of moral blindness that allowed the alleged sexual abuse of children at the heart of the scandal to continue for at least six more years. Paterno had to be fired; so should others who also turned their back to what was happening.

If Paterno had reported the instance of alleged child abuse to the police when he was first informed about it by a graduate assistant in 2002 - instead of just relaying the report to Penn State's athletic director and then ignoring the obvious inadequate inaction that followed - he might have saved other boys from a similar fate. Others at Penn State surely fall in that category.

Paterno's willful neglect to follow up to police when he was first told about the alleged assault allowed his former assistant coach and friend, Jerry Sandusky, to continue an alleged pattern of child abuse and sexual assaults against other boys until 2008, when reports by others generated a police investigation.

As the nation has now learned, Sandusky is charged with sexual abuse and assaults of eight young boys over a period of 15 years. He reportedly insinuated himself into the lives of these boys - and possibly others - through his work as the trusted head of the Second Mile Foundation, which he started in 1977 to help boys who needed foster care and family support.

Sandusky's foundation successfully raised millions of dollars, and started other chapters, to aid young boys. And of course, he became widely known, respected and trusted because of that initiative, so it was not uncommon for him to be seen frequently with young boys in tow, alone or in a group. But that is hardly what protected him. Rather, it was the culture of power and football's popularity at Penn State that apparently restrained high officials from confronting an issue that might have wrecked the university's image.

Paterno did tell Penn State's athletic director, Tim Curley, on a Sunday in 2002, that a graduate assistant had told him he had seen Sandusky raping a boy about 10 years old in a locker room shower at the university two nights before. About 10 days later, he was called to a meeting where he repeated the report to Curley and Penn State's senior vice president for finance and business, Gary Schultz, who also had authority over Penn State's police department.

But that information, a Pennsylvania grand jury has reported, was never relayed to any police authorities. The graduate student said he was told that Sandusky, who had earlier retired as a coach, had been officially cautioned by a school official. Yet he continued his work with Second Mile and still visited the Penn State campus with young boys.

The grand jury's report recounts that Curley and Schultz, who were charged this week with perjury to the grand jury and failure to report the incident to police, apparently let Sandusky off with an admonition. Both were fired this week, as was Penn State's 16-year president Graham Spannier along with Paterno.

Those actions were needed, but they are far from enough. Pennsylvania's officials should create a blue-ribbon investigative panel to examine the Penn State culture to ascertain why earlier signs - abuse allegedly seen in the shower room by janitors in 2000; similar reports papered over in 1998 - went unresolved, shuffled aside and neglected.

Others looked the other way, avoided their legal and moral responsibilities, and thus allowed an alleged pattern of child abuse to continue, apparently to save the university's reputation from embarrassment. That culture, at Penn State and elsewhere, must be changed to yield to legal and moral accountability.