By Eugene Robinson
Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno said, “I did what I was supposed to.” In fact, nobody at Penn State did what basic human decency requires—and as a result, according to prosecutors, an alleged sexual predator who could have been stopped years ago was allowed to continue molesting young boys.
The arrest Saturday of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on felony child sex abuse charges, involving at least eight victims, has sent university officials scrambling to justify a pattern of self-serving inattention and inaction.
University Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley also face charges—for failing to report what they knew about Sandusky and for allegedly perjuring themselves before a grand jury. Both proclaim their innocence. After an emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees, it was announced that the two officials would be stepping away from their jobs.
Penn State President Graham Spanier has said that Schultz and Curley have his “unconditional support.” If he believes the way they acted was right, or even remotely acceptable, then he needs to go, too—as does Paterno, who can only destroy his legacy by hanging on and trying to excuse the inexcusable.
Assuming that even half of what Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly alleges is true, Sandusky is a patient and calculating pedophile who used his insider status with the glamorous Penn State football program to lure boys as young as 10. Sandusky allegedly met his victims through The Second Mile, a charity he founded that provides programs for troubled—and vulnerable—youth.
The investigation that led to the charges was launched in 2009 after the mother of a boy—a Second Mile participant—reported allegations of sexual assault to officials at a high school where Sandusky, now 67, volunteered. But Penn State officials knew at least 11 years earlier that there were disturbing questions about physical contact between Sandusky and young boys.
In 1998, Sandusky was famous in the college football world as the defensive wizard who gave Penn State the nickname “Linebacker U,” and he was often mentioned as Paterno’s likely successor.
That year, the university police department conducted what a grand jury report calls a “lengthy investigation” of allegations that Sandusky had hugged, rubbed against and inappropriately touched two 11-year-old boys while they were naked with him in the showers of a Penn State locker room.
Detectives listened in while the mother of one of the boys called Sandusky to confront him. According to the grand jury report, Sandusky told her: “I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead.”
The local district attorney declined to prosecute, and the investigation was closed. Paterno was Sandusky’s immediate boss, and Curley was Paterno’s. Perhaps all who were involved did, in the narrowest sense, what they were “supposed to.” But imagine how much better it would have been if someone had done the right thing and taken that 1998 incident seriously—better for the victims, but also better for the university’s reputation and ultimately better for Sandusky himself.
It gets much worse: In 2002, after Sandusky had retired—although he still had an office and enjoyed the run of the Penn State athletic facilities—a football team “graduate assistant” saw Sandusky raping a young boy in the showers, according to the grand jury report.
The assistant—widely identified in news reports as Mike McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback who is now the team’s wide receivers coach—told Paterno what he had seen. Paterno told Curley. The assistant was eventually summoned to a meeting with Curley and Schultz at which he says he described the rape in graphic detail.
The two officials claim they were only told about behavior that was “not that serious.” They took it seriously enough, however, to decree that Sandusky could no longer bring Second Mile children into the football building.
But they “never attempted to learn the identity of the child in the shower,” according to the grand jury. “No one from the university did so.”
According to the grand jury, the assistant, Paterno, Curley, Schultz and Spanier all knew about the incident. Each covered his own behind. None lifted a finger to find out who the victim was or what had become of him.
Tell us again how you did everything you were supposed to do?
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group
AP / Carolyn Kaster
Penn State head coach Joe Paterno faces reporters in this 2007 file photo. Paterno’s long and celebrated career may end in scandal.