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How could they do nothing?

Many on the Penn State campus knew about allegations of molestation by a former football coach, but no one stepped forward.

November 12, 2011|Sandy Banks
  • Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, right, with Jerry Sandusky in 1999. Sandusky is accused of molesting eight boys. Paterno was fired this week.
Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, right, with Jerry Sandusky… (Paul Vathis / Associated…)

Penn State didn't do itself any favors by abruptly dumping Joe Paterno this week.

What Paterno did — or didn't do — when he was told that one of his former coaches had sexually abused a young boy on campus is certainly grounds for being cut loose.

But the late-night firing of the legendary coach does nothing to blunt the hit to Penn State's reputation from an unfolding drama of epic dimensions.

DOCUMENT: Read the grand jury report

Coach Paterno is not the problem. He is merely the most potent symbol of an affliction that goes beyond up-the-ranks inaction on this insular college campus.

Getting rid of Paterno is supposed to send a message that Penn State is "swift and decisive," as one trustee said, and determined to clean house "so we never have anyone in a position of trust ever violate young boys ever again."

But "never" is an impossible promise, and "swift and decisive" an empty phrase. Penn State officials have had plenty of time to ponder this case and anticipate this day.

Pennsylvania state authorities have been looking into the sex abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, since 2009. It hasn't been a secret on campus; a local newspaper, the Patriot-News, wrote about the probe last spring.

If the trustees were really interested in taking meaningful action, they would have hauled Paterno in for questioning, before hustling him off campus.

What I would like to hear from wise old JoePa — the man who made "Success With Honor" the university mantra — is the same thing being wondered across the country, in chat rooms and kitchens and coffee shops, at soccer games and tailgate parties:

How could so many men on that campus believe, or at least suspect, that young boys were being molested by someone they knew and do nothing to stop him?

The details of the allegations, revealed in a state grand jury report, are stomach-turning and horrifying.

Sandusky, 67, a fixture on the Penn State campus, is charged with 40 criminal counts of sexual assault on eight boys he met through a charity he founded for disadvantaged children.

Two high-ranking Penn State officials were also arrested for not reporting Sandusky's alleged misconduct — which went on, according to the report, from 1994 to 2008 — and lying to the grand jury about it.

Some of the assaults documented in the report took place on the Penn State campus. Two were witnessed by Penn State employees.

In 2000, a janitor cleaning a locker room shower stumbled upon a scene he described as more upsetting than anything he'd seen as a soldier during the Korean War. A grown man had a small boy pinned against the wall and was performing oral sex on him.

The shaken janitor told co-workers and his boss; they sat around that night and talked about it. They were afraid that reporting it might cost them their jobs. And as the janitors went about their cleaning, one of them saw Sandusky leave the locker room with a wet-haired boy, walking "hand in hand."

Two years later, a 28-year-old grad student — former Penn State quarterback Mike McQueary — was in the locker room late at night when he heard the "rhythmic, slapping sounds…of sexual activity," the grand jury report said.

McQueary testified that he peered into the shower and witnessed a naked boy "with his hands against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky."

Both the boy and Sandusky saw McQueary watching them.

McQueary didn't call police, but left immediately, "distraught," he said, and telephoned his dad. They met with Coach Paterno at his home the next morning.

That's where the official buck-passing about who-knew-what-and-when begins.

Those issues, of legal responsibility and civil liability, will be sorted out in court.

But what I can't understand, and we may never know, is what went through the minds of those men who knew that what they saw was grievously wrong, and yet they let Sandusky walk off.

I put that question to a couple of experts who have seen this sort of moral battle close up, from the victimized children's corner.

"If it was a stranger, I think those people might have jumped in there and beat the crap out of him," said Los Angeles attorney David Ring, who represents victims of sexual abuse in lawsuits against youth groups, churches and schools.

"But they saw this 25-year highly respected coach. They hesitate. And then they talk themselves out of doing anything," he said.

Fear certainly played a role. Sandusky was a big man on campus, from a football program beyond reproach.

"I think these people felt in the moment that they were doing the right thing," said New York City therapist Richard Gartner, author of "Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life After Boyhood Sexual Abuse."

"There's a huge patriarchal system in place. Reporting up the chain of command, you assume somebody else will do the right thing."

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