What role does Joe Paterno have in Penn State sex abuse scandal against former assistant Jerry Sandusky?

The story begins with an alleged sexual predator and all the heartbreaking images that portrait suggests.

Jerry Sandusky was once an enormously popular assistant football coach at Penn State University, and he founded an organization devoted to helping needy children. Prosecutors now say he used this foundation to earn the trust and devotion of wayward boys before turning these 10-year-olds into his private playthings.

If the story ended there, it would be horrible enough. We might shake our heads at the atrocities and then try to rationalize their existence as the perversions of a twisted man.

But there is more to it.

There were decisions and omissions made by other Penn State officials who allegedly permitted this abuse to go on for years. There are eyewitnesses who wrestled with their consciences and professional fears. There is legendary coach Joe Paterno and the issue of whether he abdicated moral responsibility once he fulfilled a legal obligation.

And there is one simple question left unanswered:

Wasn't anyone worried about the children?

"If you remember Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote that our ethical responsibilities go way beyond our legal responsibilities," said Jennifer Teoli, a rape crisis advocate at the Suncoast Center. "How could these people allow this to go on once they were notified about it? Where is your compassion for these 10- and 12-year-old children being molested? How do you sleep at night?

"Joe Paterno is a legend, but nothing he's accomplished will ever matter if he turned a blind eye to this. He could win 50 national championships and they would mean nothing if he didn't look out for the welfare of these poor kids."

For many, Sandusky's role in this will be a simple case of black and white. If you believe the allegations included in a 23-page grand jury report, then your only concern is the depth of Sandusky's future hell. The same is true for the athletic director and university administrator who are accused of looking the other way and have been charged with perjury.

To me, Paterno's involvement is the real essence of the story. He is the college football icon. He is the one who forged the motto of "Success with Honor" at Penn State. He is the one, rightly or wrongly, who has been promoted as the ideal college football coach.

Now, from a legal standpoint, Paterno is protected. He went up the ladder and informed his athletic director when an allegation was brought to his attention in 2002.

But was that enough?

There had already been issues with Sandusky's behavior around children. He was investigated by the university police department in 1998 after it was discovered he was showering with children on campus, and he unexpectedly retired within the year, though he kept an office at the football complex.

And now Paterno was told in 2002 by an eyewitness that Sandusky was again showering with a young boy late at night in the team locker room and something of a sexual nature was involved. At this point, there is some debate whether Paterno was told of the explicit nature, but does that really matter?

A trustworthy witness came to Paterno's home and told him he saw Jerry Sandusky fondling a 10-year-old in a shower, and now Paterno is shocked by his friend's arrest?

How could he allow his athletic director to brush this aside? How could he not notify the police or other authorities as Sandusky continued to bring children around?

"I am appalled," said Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. "I am beyond appalled. It is absolutely disgusting that this one person, this eyewitness, did the right thing and brought this to the attention of Paterno, and nothing happened after that. How many more kids did Sandusky abuse after that? How many other lives were ruined? These people should be ashamed of themselves for the rest of their lives, and if they're not, there's something seriously wrong with them.

"The truth is we're all responsible in these matters. Nobody gets to look the other way. Paterno is responsible. He's culpable. He's responsible for what he did not do.

"Let me put it this way: Would these people be okay with it if this was their grandson who was in that shower? Would they be okay with somebody doing exactly what they did, which was absolutely nothing?"

Thus far, Paterno's only public stance has been to release a statement over the weekend saying he was shocked and quickly pointing out that he did what he was required to do by reporting the allegation to his boss.

But I wonder if he really believes that. I wonder if he thinks about a child being raped in the shower and wonders why a university never tried to find that little boy. I wonder if he thinks about the hundreds of other children who were at risk while Sandusky continued running overnight camps at Penn State.

I do not easily dismiss how uncomfortable this must have been for Paterno. How a man he had known for more than 30 years was involved. How the reputation of the program he had built was at stake.

"There was a time when I tried to understand how people might convince themselves to look the other way, but not anymore," said David Braughton, president and chief executive of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. "After you spend some time with sexual assault victims and see the aftermath and how it destroys lives, you would never think that again.

"It's a matter of conscience. He had a greater duty to protect those children."

Already, there are those calling for the 84-year-old Paterno to resign. At this point, I couldn't care less whether he coaches again.

What I care about is Paterno's scheduled news conference today. I want to hear his explanations. I want to hear him express regret at not doing more when he had a chance.

"I hope this is a big story for a long time, and as a nation we have a chance to look at our priorities," said Teoli, the rape crisis advocate. "This case could help get the message across that we don't care who you are or how great your record is or what you've won.

"Because when it comes to children, nothing else matters. We are all responsible for protecting our children."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

What role does Joe Paterno have in Penn State sex abuse scandal against former assistant Jerry Sandusky? 11/07/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:21am]

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