On Sept. 11 I watched as so many good people put their lives in peril to save others, and I wondered whether I would have had the courage to do the same. I doubt it. But there were no burning towers at Penn State. Doing the right thing to protect a small boy would have taken very little.
Yet, according to a 23-page grand jury report, no one did - - certainly not Mike McQueary, who told the grand jury that when he was a graduate assistant back in 2002 he had witnessed former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky sodomizing a boy in a shower. McQueary, a strapping former football player, lacked the guts to stop the alleged rape in progress. But why was he incapable of picking up the phone and dialing 911? (In an email attributed to McQueary and leaked, he said he did indeed stop the abuse, although it’s unclear how. “I did stop it,” the email reads, “not physically ... but made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room.”)
I’m a Penn State graduate, one who worshipped at the church of Joe Paterno, the plainspoken Warren Buffett of the Nittany Valley. Despite making, bringing in and giving away millions over his 46 seasons as head football coach, including financing a new library and chapel on campus, Paterno has always lived as a modest man. His home is a 1950s ranch that’s never seen a granite counter or stainless-steel appliance. Paterno famously taught his players values, along with football. No one danced in the end zone or spiked the ball, and almost everyone graduated.
I find it hard to believe that Paterno, bolstered by his own authority and legend, stood by as one child after another became a victim. It’s as if he’d never heard the cliche that for evil to triumph, good men need only do nothing. Sandusky, who has been charged with 40 counts of sexually abusing children, says he is innocent. Yet reading the grand jury’s report is like watching a movie where you shout at the screen “Call the police!” No one does, and catastrophe ensues.
In 1998, a mother of one of the boys in Sandusky’s Second Mile charity, ostensibly founded to help poor youth, called the university police when her son came home emotionally shaken with wet hair after having taken a shower with Sandusky. Detective Ronald Schreffler listened in when the mother confronted Sandusky on the phone. When she asked Sandusky if his “private parts” had touched the boy, he replied, according to the grand jury report, “I don’t think so ... maybe.” The report states that Sandusky later admitted hugging the boy in the shower and told investigators he would not shower again with children.
According to Detective Schreffler’s testimony, the head of campus police, Thomas Harmon, told Schreffler to drop the case. The State College police and the local district attorney, Ray Gricar, also took a pass.
In 1999, Sandusky retired from Penn State with an emeritus status that enabled him to continue using campus facilities, including the football locker room, which made it easy to attract star-struck youngsters. Paterno stayed on the honorary board of Sandusky’s charity.
In 2000, according to the grand jury report, a janitor named Jim Calhoun reported to his supervisor that he had seen Sandusky having sex with a boy. Nothing happened -- apparently because the janitorial crew worried they might lose their jobs if they rocked the boat. Then, on the Friday night before Spring Break in 2002, McQueary, who was 28, followed what the grand jury report called “rhythmic, slapping sounds” and discovered Sandusky in the shower raping a boy whom McQueary guessed to be about 10 years old. According to the grand jury report, “both Victim 2 and Sandusky” saw McQueary. Rather than confront Sandusky, McQueary left immediately and called his father.
The next morning, McQueary described what he had witnessed to Paterno, who waited until the following day before relaying the allegations to Athletic Director Tim Curley. No one appeared to be in a hurry. A couple weeks went by before Sandusky’s keys to the facility were taken away and the incident was reported to Sandusky’s charity. Along the way, McQueary’s description of “anal sex” seems to have mutated into something like “horsing around” in the minds of Curley and another administrator, former senior vice president Gary Schultz, both of whom say they are not guilty of charges that they covered up the allegations against Sandusky.
It all stayed in the family, the religion of football mimicking that of the Catholic Church. Paterno, Curley, Schultz and McQueary all had powerful reasons to believe that a sexual predator was running a charity for kids. The moral poison didn’t stop there. Last week Penn State students rampaged through the streets, incensed that the coach had been let go. They were seemingly unmoved by those who had been hurt, concerned only for those whose power had been taken away.
McQueary has been placed on administrative leave. Paterno has gained a lawyer and a public relations expert. Everything else -- that is, everything Paterno always said was truly important -- appears lost. On a plaque behind a bronze statue of Paterno on campus is a quote from the coach. “They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place. Not just that I was a good football coach.” Paterno failed.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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