Guest post by Wendy Murphy from The Patriot Ledger November 10, 2011
I couldn’t care less about Penn State’s football team, wouldn’t recognize Joe Paterno if I sat on him and can’t understand why anyone gives a damn about college sports. But there’s no denying the popularity of the football program at Penn State or the fact that having a famous coach involved in a child sex abuse controversy is the primary reason an all too common form of child abuse has been thrust into the spotlight.
The downside of having Joe Paterno involved is that the football angle is getting too much attention. The story has little to do with football and much to do with the way institutions evade oversight and accountability from real world law enforcement, especially on matters involving child abuse and sexual violence.
Paterno’s fame is no excuse for the rest of us to become distracted from demanding the truth about what happened and determining who deserves primary blame for the prolific sexual abuse of children at the hands of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach who stands charged with 40 predatory sex crimes against at least eight boys, including the anal rape of a ten year-old child in a Penn State locker room in 2002.
Sandusky’s 2002 attack was witnessed by a graduate student named Mike McQueary who is now employed by the university as an assistant coach in the football program. The student witnessed Sandusky in the act of raping a child but did nothing to stop him and didn’t report the abuse to police. He then told his father and Joe Paterno what he saw.
One (poor) explanation for why the grad student didn’t do more is that Penn State, like most institutions, likely has policies in place that require employees who know about abuse to report the incidents internally, to a designated official, who is then supposed to comply with mandatory reporting laws on behalf of the university. Employment policies are not excuses for individuals to violate the law, but institutions usually make it clear that only a designated official has authority to file a report, and any individual who acts in derogation of the policy faces employment sanctions including termination.
Even worse than the lack of oversight for institutional noncompliance with mandatory reporting laws is that in nearly every state, including Pennsylvania, the law provides that violations carry, at most, only a minor fine. When school officials weigh the burden of a trivial fine against the implications of being known as a school where a little boy was raped, noncompliance is an easy choice.
We can blame the lack of morality and human decency at Penn State, but some of the blame rests with lawmakers who know well that passing a mandate with no teeth is the same as announcing to the public that we don’t really care if people comply.
Even with only minor penalties on the books, prosecutors are reluctant to pursue violations of mandatory reporting laws when they occur in university settings because of concerns that such powerful institutions carry great sway during re-election time. Presidents of influential universities have the capacity to funnel large amounts of money to campaigns of prosecutors who, with a wink and a nod, agree to protect universities from scandal rather than publicly redress crimes on campus. Thus, it came as no surprise that the Grand Jury report included mention of a 1998 incident involving Sandusky’s sexual abuse of another child in the Penn State locker room, which was declined for prosecution by the District Attorney even though the matter was reported to law enforcement and the case was strong because evidence included the testimony of a janitor who witnessed the abuse firsthand.
Paterno bears some of the blame because after McQueary told him of the 2002 incident, he told Penn State’s athletic director, Tim Curley, what the student saw, but he didn’t report the incident to police. And for reasons that remain inexplicably unclear, Paterno remained close personal friends with Sandusky after 2002 and continued to serve on the advisory board of a foundation, set up by Sandusky in 1977, to provide mentoring for boys from troubled families. The foundation gave Sandusky access to the vulnerable children he groomed for sexual victimization.
Paterno is the only one from Penn State thus far willing to acknowledge that he was wrong. He announced his resignation this week and was formally relieved of all coaching duties for the rest of the 2011 season amid tearful expressions of shame and guilt for not doing more. It was a good step in the right direction but Paterno’s contract was up anyway and his resignation should have no bearing on our collective willingness to hold other responsible adults accountable.
Two individuals who deserve far more blame than Paterno are Tim Curley and the university’s Vice President for business affairs (otherwise known as the risk management guy) Gary Schultz, who were told about the rape in 2002. Neither man reported the crime to police or child protective services though they did take away Sandusky’s keys and forbid him to bring children to the university.
Schultz and Curley now stand charged with failing to report child abuse as well as perjury for lying to the Grand Jury about what they knew. They claimed, under oath, that Paterno told them the 2002 incident involved only harmless horseplay. Paterno, by contrast, testified that he told both men the incident involved sexual abuse. The Grand Jury concluded that Curley and Schultz lied, no doubt because they found it hard to believe Paterno would have felt compelled to report to Schultz and Curley an incident involving only harmless roughhousing. It also makes no sense that if it were truly only nonsexual horseplay, school officials would have felt compelled to take Sandusky’s keys away and forbid him to bring children to campus.
By far the worst offender of law and morality in this ugly saga is university president Graham Spanier, whose responsibility it was to ensure compliance with child abuse reporting laws.
Just as the cover up of child sex abuse in Boston’s Catholic Church scandal was the ultimate responsibility Cardinal Bernard Law, the failure of Penn State belongs to Spanier.
Yet in stark contrast to the contrite tears of Joe Paterno, Spanier issued a public statement announcing his unconditional support for Curley and Schultz. Think about that. What kind of university president offers support for two men charged with perjury whose actions enabled the continued sexual abuse of children? Answer – the kind of president who knows that Curley and Schultz are taking the fall for him by testifying falsely about whether they knew the 2002 incident involved sexual abuse. If either man testified truthfully, they would necessarily implicate Spanier and the integrity of the entire university because everything the men did and didn’t do in response to the 2002 incident was approved by Spanier.
Of course he supports them unconditionally.
Because the Grand Jury found that Curley and Schultz lied, they clearly also believe that Spanier knew the 2002 case involved sexual abuse and that Spanier allowed or ordered Schultz and Curley not to report the incident to police. These facts, alone, were enough for the Board of Trustees to oust Spanier immediately, as they rightly did this week.
Heads are rolling in this case, which is a good thing. But let’s make sure Joe Paterno’s resignation isn’t overvalued as a sufficiently retributive pound of flesh. He is the most famous individual involved, but by no means is he the most responsible.
With any luck, Paterno’s tearful apology will inspire all the boys who Sandusky violated to come forward, safe in the knowledge that not only the public but also Joe Paterno is on their side.
All kids are easy to silence when the offender is a person in a position of trust. For kids from troubled families, the idea of speaking out against a guy like Sandusky isn’t even a consideration because they don’t expect to be believed against the denials of an influential perpetrator, and usually they’re right.
Joe owes it to the kids he let down to use the little credibility he has left to encourage all Sandusky’s victims to come forward. He should get his tears flowing again and make a public statement to the effect that anyone who speaks out about abuse at the hands of Jerry Sandusky is a hero far greater than even the winningest coach in Penn State history.