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Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Published: Friday, 7/13/2012

Culture of concealment

Anyone who still worries about the legacy of football coaching legend Joe Paterno has missed the critical lesson of the child sex abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University.

A report released Thursday by former FBI director Louis Freeh, whom the university hired to investigate its response to the actions of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, makes clear that the late head coach shared culpability with three other senior university executives in failing to protect children from a sexual predator for 14 years.

Mr. Paterno, former university president Graham Spanier, retired senior vice president Gary Schultz, and athletic director Timothy Curley presided over a culture that put the reputation of Penn State and its coaches above the welfare of victimized children and above legal requirements to report suspicions of abuse.

Those four officials, the report said, had an "active agreement to conceal" allegations that a young boy was raped in a university shower in 2001 by Sandusky -- a pact that was not dissolved until a state grand jury investigation last year.

They wanted to "avoid the consequences of bad publicity," which Mr. Freeh said would have included a government investigation, damage to the university's brand and the reputation of its coaches, threats to Penn State's ability to raise money, and questions about what they did in 1998 when another child sex assault involving the same coach was alleged.

The investigation turned up emails that showed Mr. Paterno's involvement. Plans to notify police when the 2001 shower assault was reported by a coaching assistant changed after Mr. Curley consulted Mr. Paterno.

The four officials knew about a 1998 criminal investigation of a similar incident, in which Sandusky was not charged. They did not tell the university's board of trustees or even talk to Sandusky about it. The report says Mr. Paterno in particular followed the matter closely but took no action.

Mr. Paterno's family probably is correct in saying that he, like others, was fooled for a long time by a masterful manipulator. But that does not excuse the atmosphere and attitude that permeated Penn State's football program.

A janitor who saw Sandusky raping a child, and coworkers he told about it, did not feel safe reporting the incident. "They said, 'We can't report this because we'll get fired,'" Mr. Freeh said.

The report also concluded that the university's board of trustees, even after news reports about the grand jury's investigation of Sandusky, did not press Mr. Spanier hard enough for answers or action.

Penn State has instituted changes aimed at protecting children and following the law, but the work is not done. The university must become a place that safeguards children, not an adult who might abuse them. Law enforcement officials also have more work to do to address the willful misdeeds of Mr. Spanier, Mr. Schultz, and Mr. Curley.

Supporters of Coach Paterno may want to pretend that this tragedy did not take place within his sphere of influence, but the evidence says otherwise. It says football trumped everything else at Penn State, when the university's mission must be to educate young people.

Penn State should suspend its football program until the university has regained its perspective. The case is only the latest, but the most tragic, example of what happens when a sport rules a university.

Penn State failed to protect children and its own reputation -- the goal of the unconscionable cover-up. Regaining public trust won't be easy, but figuring out how to do that means more than deciding what to do with the statue of Mr. Paterno outside the football stadium.



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