Outside the Penn State football stadium stands a statue of legendary coach Joe Paterno, his arm raised in victory. Right next to it, university officials should erect another figure in bronze: a young boy crying out in anguish and being coldly ignored.

Penn State’s Board of Trustees commissioned former FBI Director Louis Freeh to investigate how child molester Jerry Sandusky — for years one of Paterno’s most trusted and loyal assistants — could have committed his awful crimes under the noses of university officials. The answer is simple and shocking: Those officials simply looked the other way.

“The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims,” the report states. “Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University … failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”

Those four powerful officials include Paterno, who died earlier this year of lung cancer. Almost literally a sainted figure in the world of big-time, big-money college sports, Paterno became aware of seriously inappropriate behavior by Sandusky with young boys at least 14 years ago, according to Freeh’s report. Paterno’s inaction was shameful.

Most damning is Freeh’s finding that in 2001, after an assistant coach saw Sandusky raping a young boy in the showers of a Penn State locker room, an intervention by Paterno was apparently instrumental in convincing university officials to sweep the incident under the rug.

The other three men allegedly involved in the cover-up — former Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Vice President Gary Schultz, both of whom face perjury charges, and former university President Graham Spanier — had decided to notify state child-welfare officials, according to Freeh, who had access to private emails and notes.

But before any action was taken, Curley wrote to Schultz and Spanier that “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe,” he had decided he would be more “comfortable” meeting with Sandusky, counseling him to get professional help and telling him “his guests are not permitted to use our facilities.”

Note the word “guests,” which may be one of the most chilling euphemisms I’ve ever heard.

University officials didn’t even follow through on the inadequate response of cutting off Sandusky’s access to Penn State facilities. According to Freeh’s report, Sandusky “was allowed to have a key for, and continued to work out in” the athletic complex until November of last year. “If university leaders had not granted Sandusky full use of Penn State’s football facilities and supported his ways to ‘work with young people through Penn State,’ sexual assaults of several young boys on the Penn State campus might have been prevented.”

It goes without saying that Paterno’s legacy is forever tarnished. He was head coach at Penn State for 46 years until being fired last year after Sandusky was arrested and the charges against him made public. Paterno’s 409 wins are the most of any Division I coach. His Nittany Lions won two national championships and made 37 bowl appearances. He was especially proud of his football program’s record as a model: Penn State avoided the recruiting scandals that involved so many other schools with top-ranked athletic programs, and his football players graduated at an admirable rate.

In a letter he wrote before his death, apparently intended as an op-ed piece, Paterno argued that whatever people might think of his actions in the Sandusky matter, “this is not a football scandal.”

But that’s precisely what it is.

Imagine that an assistant coach of, say, the chess team were caught showering with an 11-year-old boy, as Sandusky was in 1998. Would that chess coach still be around three years later? If he were caught in the act of abusing another young boy in 2001, would the top officials of the university dither and fret for days — without making the slightest attempt to identify and locate the victim? Would the head chess coach be able to convince his superiors that there was no need to call state welfare officials, let alone the police?

The truth is that Joe Paterno was more powerful at Penn State than any athletic director, more powerful even than the university’s president. And the reputation of the football program was more important than the safety and well-being of innocent young boys.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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