I have read the Freeh Report relative to the systematic sexual abuse of children at Penn State University, and like all of you I am saddened and horrified by the sequence of events that allowed a sexual predator to run free for as long as he did. Earlier in my career my law partner and I were involved in defending and suing a number of Catholic Priests accused of the sexual abuse of children. The most horrifying aspect of what has been going on at Penn State is that it is, essentially, the same sad tale. The institutional similarities between the church and the university are striking: in both cases the acts of the individual offenders were compounded by institutional acquiescence and complicity. Let’s be clear, the scale of the church sexual abuse dwarfs what occurred at Penn State, but their crimes are remarkably similar.
Judge Freeh was appointed by Penn State to conduct a full investigation, and based upon the methodology described in the report, he and his staff looked at everything. In a remarkably well reasoned and painstakingly honest assessment of the problems at Penn State, the report has concluded that the desire to protect the institution that is PSU was determined to be more important than protecting the children who were being abused. This motivation served to shield a known predator of children for at least 14 years, during which time Sandusky raped innocent children.
The institutional desire to maintain its pristine reputation is no different than the Catholic hierarchy’s decision to cover up the widespread abuse dating back several decades. Priests were moved, and in many instances placed into more fertile hunting grounds so as to avoid disclosure of long standing and pervasive sexual misconduct. I think it is fair to say that the Catholic Church never endorsed sexual abuse, but in seeking to protect the institution they became as guilty as the pedophiles they protected. Their motives do not matter because their interests paled in comparison to the interest of protecting children. But, in order to protect the church, priests were moved across the country and often placed into closer contact with children. In one case here in Massachusetts, several pedophile priests were placed into a “House of Affirmation” that was on a pond with a camp. The Boston Archdiocese under the leadership of Cardinal Bernard Law was fully aware of the problem and did next to nothing to remove offending priests. For those transgressions the Church paid millions and will likely never recover any legitimacy as a moral voice.
Penn State shares many of the same institutional flaws. The Freeh report concluded that iconic coach Joe Paterno, the Athletic Director, several staff members and University President Spanier were aware of Sandusky’s crimes in 1998 and that nothing was done to remove Sandusky from the University, or to report him to state prosecutorial authorities. In a series of internal e-mails appended to the report it is clear that the Sandusky issues were discussed at the highest levels of the University, and that virtually no corrective steps were taken. It struck me as odd that a student-assistant coach happened upon Sandusky as he was raping a child in a shower and then decided that his only option was to inform a coach about the incident. It speaks to the culture of secrecy created to protect the University’s prized possession (Joe Paterno) that the student assistant coach did not immediately stop the attack and then call “911”. The reaction of that student assistant tells you all you need to know: the people at Penn State who had an opportunity to protect children failed in every sense to do so. That student implicitly understood that the University was to be protected above all…what other conclusion can we draw from the fact that the student made no effort to notify the state police?
Let’s cut the nonsense for a minute…yes he did report Sandusky, but when Sandusky was hanging around after that incident the student assistant should have called the police. Period! Forget the “win at all cost” bullshit…the decisions which led to the University’s crimes had nothing to do with winning football games….it had to do with protecting Joe Paterno, because Joe Paterno was the face of Penn State. He was the guy who brought the cameras, the media scrutiny, the recruits and most importantly the money. Without Joe Paterno Penn State would have been a football footnote more than a decade ago…..so when the hand wringing is done and the mea culpas are made…don’t listen to a word about how people didn’t understand the full extent of Sandusky’s crimes….they knew and had an opportunity to know it all and made a purposeful and evil decision to protect Jo Pa and by extension his football team. Think about this, what other major football school kept their iconic head coach for more than 50 years? After Bear Bryant at Alabama, and Bobby Bowden at Florida State….name another coach who is more closely affiliated with a university than Paterno was with Penn State. Years after the coach had lost the ability to effectively coach he was kept on, years after his teams were no longer in the running for top recruits and national titles…they kept Paterno….so it should come as little surprise that something like a sex scandal posed no dilemma. After all, this is Joe Paterno we’re talking about.
In my estimation everyone who knew of Sandusky’s crimes are equally culpable with him and should be prosecuted fully. Instead of stopping Sandusky, they paid him $168,000 when he retired, they created a coach Emeritus status for a known pedophile, they provided him an office, use of locker room facilities, season passes to football and basketball games and most importantly they failed to report his suspected and known crimes to outside authorities. In effect, the university worked to protect Sandusky and actually provided him with the very means by which he continued to rape children. Judge Freeh made the following finding: “Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,.. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. The report makes clear that Hall of Fame coach Paterno, University President Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”
Now, of course, Joe Paterno’s legacy will be debated. His family, for instance, has vowed to conduct its own investigation….but with all due respect to the Paterno family…a white washing is not what needs to happen here. We need to consider the events that led to a major university to conclude that it was in there best interest to protect Mr. Paterno and his football team. In my estimation it is about money, prestige and the power that comes from Penn State’s position as a major American university. That is where they lose me though…in 1998 when Sandusky’s actions first came into focus, Penn State would have almost certainly have benefitted by the revelation that it had uncovered Sandusky’s deviance and taken decisive and final action to remove him and report him to the police. The disclosure would have been the right thing to do and it could have been accurately spun as part of Penn State’s commitment to protect children. There clearly would have been an investigation and there clearly would have been questions asked….but no other kid would have been raped and the institution would have looked far better. Instead, the revelations lead to the conclusion that PSU is a secretive, corrupt and immoral institution.
I have no problem with the calls to remove Paterno’s statue and I would gladly support an effort to remove him from the Hall of Fame…but these measures are superficial fixes aimed at punishing a man who is dead. Take down all references to Paterno but make sure that the next time that a pedophile is discovered that there are procedures in place to protect and counsel the victim, remove the pedophile and then to cooperate in the prosecution of that pedophile. Change the culture that made it so difficult for janitors and student-assistants to call 911, encourage and incentivize the reporting process…discuss the importance of diligence and then when action is required be decisive and stand proudly for protecting victims of sexual assaults regardless of age, gender or orientation. Penn State you are supposed to be an example of progressive culture….you are most certainly not supposed to be the Catholic Church.
To those who would seek to restore Joe Paterno’s legacy….forget it. He will be remembered as a man who sheltered a predator. When Joe Paterno arrived at that split in the road where he had to decide between right and wrong…Joe Paterno will always be remembered for the wrong choice. In my estimation Joe Paterno was a disgraceful coward….who worked for disgraceful cowards.