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Editorial

Penn State's moral lapses

Penn State supporters and students who rioted over the firing of Joe Paterno should focus instead on those who did too little to protect endangered children.

November 12, 2011
  • A news van was toppled by protesters.
A news van was toppled by protesters. (Matt Rourke / Associated…)

Penn State supporters and students rioted this week, angry that the university's Board of Trustees fired legendary football coach Joe Paterno late Wednesday over his handling of a former assistant coach accused of molesting boys on campus. Surely, those fans and students have a right to be angry, but not about losing their beloved coach. Rather, their ire should be focused on the university and those who did too little to protect endangered children.

Jerry Sandusky, the former coach, faces criminal charges of sexually abusing at least eight boys over more than a decade. And a grand jury has indicted two senior university officials for lying and failing to report the alleged incidents to authorities.

FULL COVERAGE: Penn State scandal

For his part, Paterno has not been accused of violating any laws and is not likely to face any charges. He told the grand jury that the first he'd heard of the subject was in 2002 when a graduate student assistant came to him and said he'd witnessed Sandusky doing something sexually inappropriate to a boy. Paterno reported the incident to Athletic Director Tim Curley, but did not go to the police. Curley then met with the graduate assistant, who said he believed he had seen Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in the showers. Curley and Gary Schultz, a senior vice president who oversaw the campus police, then barred Sandusky from bringing children on campus. But they never reported the incident to the police.

Paterno may not have broken any laws, but he had a clear moral obligation to inform law enforcement authorities. It wasn't what he did but what he didn't do that was wrong, as was the lack of action by everyone else who learned of the alleged abuse and failed to act appropriately. That includes the graduate assistant, and a janitor who in 2000 told co-workers he came across Sandusky molesting a boy in the showers.

In considering Paterno, we can't help but be reminded of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who in 1986 failed to notify police after Father Michael Baker told him he had sexually assaulted boys. Baker would go on to abuse more boys. Mahony has said he failed to act because he believed the abuse was an isolated incident. But that's no excuse: Even one incident is too many.

FULL COVERAGE: Penn State scandal

Had Paterno and the university reported the alleged abuse, it could have become been a scandal for the football program. But it would also have sent a strong message that they had their moral and legal priorities straight. Instead, the officials' decision to keep it quiet simply raises concerns that those in power worried more about preserving the reputation of their institution than protecting children and public safety.

Paterno said Wednesday that he wishes he had done more. So do Sandusky's alleged victims.

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