published Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Penn State's higher duty

Reports on the child abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University appeared from the beginning last year to suggest a conspiracy among a core group of officials to cover-up serial sex abuse of young boys by an assistant football coach to preserve the legendary heritage and myopic pride held throughout the state for Joe Paterno's football program. The exhaustive report issued Thursday by former FBI director Louis Freeh soundly shatters that flawed legend.

It refutes the notion among Penn State defenders that there was no cover-up, and confirms the extent of the moral rot that attended Penn State's slavish cultural awe of a major football program at the cost of common decency and humane care for children.

Freeh's infinitely damning report shows that Paterno knew in 1998 of Jerry Sandusky's alleged lust for the young boys he took to the showers at Penn State's famed quarters under the guise of his mentoring outreach to kids in poor families. After Paterno helped contain the investigation into one case of alleged sex abuse in the shower room in 1998 -- a case reported by the child's mother -- he followed the delicate information exchanges with Penn State's athletic director, police chief and university president.

They all, in Freeh's recitation of their emails and handwritten notes, gingerly danced around the dilemma of how to handle a situation which, if clearly revealed, would have wrecked the storied legacy of Penn State football, its pristine reputation, its following and its donors. The same thing happened in 2001, when the same four essentially defused a student-assistant coach's report of seeing Sandusky rape another boy in the showers.

Sandusky was subsequently relieved of his coaching duties with a sweetheart retirement deal, given emeritus status and the keys to the facilities -- and quietly advised to see a counselor. But no police investigation was ever brought to make a case against him -- until last year. So over a period of at least 15 years, Sandusky was free to continue his alleged molestation. He now awaits trial for the rape and abuse of 10 boys, and two of the officials are now charged with failure to report child sexual abuse and perjury.

The awful result of this cruel and deliberately chosen choice to protect Penn State football rather than to protect innocent children is now exposed, but the irreparable damage to the boys is done -- and so, incidentally, is the immense damage to Penn State. Its officials, including those on the board and in other positions who got wind of a scandal but shunned getting to the bottom of it, cannot now repair the damage to the victims or the institution.

The case shouldn't be closed any time soon. Penn State yet must make amends, and pay penalties, for failing to formulate sexual crime reporting laws, as required under the federal Clery Act of 1990. The university must also identify, and punish, the administrators and officials in all areas, including the board, who are collaterally responsible for allowing the lax environment that allowed child abuse to go uninvestigated. Its pursuit of those just ends won't redeem Penn State's reputation, but it might spur other universities to elevate their duty to provide a safe environment over their devotion to the sports figures they now cast as heroes.

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