The Moral Irresponsibility Of Joe Paterno

If true, Joe Paterno's actions in response to charges of child abuse by a coach are indefensible.

The Washingt0n Post’s Mike Wise has a blistering column this morning regarding the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Penn State football program, and most specifically the actions of one of the most famous names in the history of college football:

After what allegedly happened to “Victim 2,” a boy estimated to be 10 years old, in the same room where Penn State football players shower, it’s near impossible to keep reading the grand jury’s report. By “Victim 8,” numbness turns to anger.

You want to scream at the traumatized graduate assistant coach in 2002 and janitor in 2000 who saw and didn’t stop it, according to the report released by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office. You want to grab hold of and shake those who reported the crime only to their superiors, washed their hands of responsibility and then let it go, treating a kid’s life as if it were a football that slipped through their hands.

Most of all, you want to have an audience with one of sports’ most endearing icons, Joe Paterno, Happy Valley’s homespun saint, and ask Joe Pa, repeatedly, “While you were regaling everyone with sappy tales about meeting your wife 50 years ago over ice cream at the local creamery in State College, Pa., did you have any idea what your longtime defensive coordinator was doing in the company of young boys?”

If the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office is to be taken at its word — if the sad, sickening details of alleged sexual abuse of young boys by Jerry Sandusky are true — a once-immaculate program thought of as beyond reproach is now close to beyond redemption.

Paterno wasn’t charged, but if Sandusky is guilty, Paterno would be guilty — just as Penn State’s athletic director and a university vice president, who were charged with perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse on Saturday, would be guilty.

They would all be party to a worse crime than any crooked, pay-for-play booster at Miami, Ohio State or even SMU ever committed: guilty of protecting a program before a child.

You can’t read the 23-page grand jury report and come to any other conclusion; Penn State football and its pristine reputation apparently superseded the alleged sexual assault of a young boy — perhaps as many as eight young boys — over 15 years by Sandusky.

Joe Pa knew, if the charges are true.

They all knew.

And they never told police.

(…)

Paterno and university officials knew they hadn’t employed a defensive coordinator; they had in effect empowered a sexual predator, who the report says spent the next seven years molesting more boys.

And because they possibly chose to protect Penn State’s brand instead of a child — a 10-year-old kid whom they never even bothered to find out the name of, according to the grand jury report — more children might have suffered because of their silence.

If the grand jury report is true, they all need to step down — even the great Joe Pa. It’s the least he could do.

For however long shame and guilt hover over his last days at Penn State it will never outlast the shame and guilt felt by those young boys. Nor will it bring back their innocence. Like the sheen of Joe Pa’s program, that may well be gone forever.

Much of how Paterno is judged from this day forward is going to depend upon what facts come out about his role in this atrocious situation, and history is likely to judge him quite harshly if the allegations in the Grand Jury report [PDF – but be warned it isn’t pleasant reading] turn out to be true. The most astounding part of this for me, as many of the people who have commented on James Joyner’s post about this yesterday is the fact that everyone involved in this story, from the graduate assistant who witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a boy in the team showers, to Paterno, to the Athletic Director acted as if it was entirely appropriate that these charges be investigated internally rather than turning the matter over the University Police (or perhaps more appropriately, an outside police agency). It reminds one of the response that the Catholic Church had in years past when allegations of child sex abuse were made against priests. Rather than turn the matter over to the relevant law enforcement agency, they investigated the matter internally, paid off witnesses, and moved priests around to other churches where they would inevitably molest again. How many young boys did Sandusky molest after that night in 2002? If there was even a single one, then what happened to them lies on the conscious of every single person that handled this improperly, from the G.A. to Paterno and beyond. They didn’t commit the act, but they also failed to do what should have been done to stop a man who is obviously a danger to children.

Wise argues that this story, if true, is a bigger stain on Penn State’s program than the scandals that rocked SMU, Ohio State, and Miami. Perhaps that’s true, but I’m not even sure that there’s an NCAA rule that would cover a situation like this or whether they would even bother to try to prosecute it. In either case, though, it seems pretty clear to me that Paterno’s legacy is forever stained. Legally, he apparently did all that he was required to in that he reported a possible case of child abuse to his superiors, they’re the ones who decided not to go to the police. Morally, though, I cannot understand how a person can sleep at night knowing that they had been told about something this obscene and all they did was kick it up the university administration ladder. It makes you wonder what kind of world we live in anymore, really.

I’ve got family from Pennsylvania, several of whom have attended Penn State over the years. I almost went there myself, but ended up at Rutgers instead. In most of Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey, JoePa is something of a Football God to the faithful. After this, though, it’s pretty clear that he’s just a man with feet of clay and a very badly centered set of priorities.

Update: Commenter Stormy Dragon provides us with a link to the Pennsylvania law governing the actions of the university:

§ 6311. Persons required to report suspected child abuse.

(c) Staff members of institutions, etc.-Whenever a person is required to report under subsection (b) in the capacity as a member of the staff of a medical or other public or private iinstitution, school, facility or agency, that person shall immediately notify the person in charge of the institution, school, facility or agency or the designated agent of the person in charge. Upon notification, the person in charge or the designated agent, if any, shall assume the responsibility and have the legal obligation to report or cause a report to be made in accordance with section 6313. This chapter does not require more than one report from any such institution, school, facility or agency.

Section 6313 does indeed require that the university officials report the matter to the police. My reading of the statute doesn’t appear to impose additional legal duties on employees such as Paterno and the GA if they come to believe that their superiors aren’t acting as they should.

Update #2: Via ESPN, here is a statement that Joe Paterno has released on this matter:

If true, the nature and amount of charges made are very shocking to me and all Penn Staters. While I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention, like anyone else involved I can’t help but be deeply saddened these matters are alleged to have occurred.

Sue and I have devoted our lives to helping young people reach their potential. The fact that someone we thought we knew might have harmed young people to this extent is deeply troubling. If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers.

As my grand jury testimony stated, I was informed in 2002 by an assistant coach that he had witnessed an incident in the shower of our locker room facility. It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw, but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the Grand Jury report. Regardless, it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky. As coach Sandusky was retired from our coaching staff at that time, I referred the matter to university administrators.

I understand that people are upset and angry, but let’s be fair and let the legal process unfold. In the meantime I would ask all Penn Staters to continue to trust in what that name represents, continue to pursue their lives every day with high ideals and not let these events shake their beliefs nor who they are.

I’ll leave that for others to judge.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Sports
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. Tano says:

    Legally, he apparently did all that he was required to in that he reported a possible case of child abuse to his superiors, they’re the ones who decided not to go to the police.

    Maybe the lawyers can help me understand this, but if we are talking about the legal responsibilities of citizens, how is someone absolved of the requirement to inform the authorities by simply informing their boss?

    I don’t see anything wrong with telling your boss first, so that the organization can coordinate its response, but one would remain obliged to also inform the police, or see to it that the organization does so, in a timely manner, no?

  2. The most astounding part of this for me, as many of the people who have commented on James Joyner’s post about this yesterday is the fact that everyone involved in this story, from the graduate assistant who witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a boy in the team showers, to Paterno, to the Athletic Director acted as if it was entirely appropriate that these charges be investigated internally rather than turning the matter over the University Police (or perhaps more appropriately, an outside police agency).

    It’s not astounding given that that’s actually the law in Pennsylvania:

    § 6311. Persons required to report suspected child abuse.
    (c) Staff members of institutions, etc.–Whenever a person is required to report under subsection (b) in the capacity as a member of the staff of a medical or other public or private iinstitution, school, facility or agency, that person shall immediately notify the person in charge of the institution, school, facility or agency or the designated agent of the person in charge. Upon notification, the person in charge or the designated agent, if any, shall assume the responsibility and have the legal obligation to report or cause a report to be made in accordance with section 6313. This chapter does not require more than one report from any such institution, school, facility or agency.

    Now when it became obvious that Curley wasn’t doing anything about the report Paterno and the GA should have done more, but to start out at least they did exactly what they were required to do.

  3. @Tano:

    Without knowing the specific requirements of the Pennsylvania law, I would imagine that as a non-administrative employee of the University it may be the case that Paterno’s obligation was to report the matter to his superiors, much as a teacher is required to report such instances to his or her superiors. What legal obligations go beyond that I don’t know.

    One response would be that if Paterno had done anything he legally then he would’ve been charged along with the AD. But, of course, this is Pennsylvania and he’s Paterno and the prosecutors may have decided not to go that route.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    Morally, though, I cannot understand how a person can sleep at night knowing that they had been told about something this obscene and all they did was kick up the university administration ladder. It makes you wonder what kind of world we live in anymore, really.

    I have personal knowledge that this kind of thing isn’t new, and the betrayal often comes from those with even greater responsibility than a coach.

    You are absolutely right that Paterno is morally responsible whatever the legality. He knew he was working with a child molester. How the hell do you work with, eat with, have drinks with, a person who rapes children?

  5. @Stormy Dragon:

    I understand the law, and thank you for the link which I’ve included in an update. As I note, however, there’s a difference between legal duties and moral responsibilities here and it strikes me that this was a case where someone is required to do more than what the law requires if the system doesn’t appear to be working.

  6. @Doug Mataconis:

    I agree they morally should have done more, particularly the GA who actually witnessed the act, and Paterno certainly should have encouraged them to go to the police themselves.

    Now I’m not a lawyer, so I also wonder (as I’ve been here both ways since yesterday): could Paterno have reported it himself given that he had not actually witnessed anything? I know hearsay is not permissible as evidence at trial. Are you allowed to file a police report based on it?

  7. Lomax says:

    These people have managed to do one thing: get the attention off of Miami University.

  8. @michael reynolds:

    How the hell do you work with, eat with, have drinks with, a person who rapes children?

    It’s easy if you phrase it as “Hey, here’s this pedophile, wanna hang out with them?”, but if someone you have been close to for decades is charged with a heinous crime, it’s very hard to completely excise them from your emotional life. Suppose tomorrow you got a call telling you that one of your adult children has been arrested for murder. Would you immediately and completely cut off all contact with them?

  9. casimir says:

    a sad day for me as a penn state fan. let’s hope JoePa steps down. we all know he won’t though.

  10. @Stormy Dragon:

    The authorities can certainly open an investigation based on evidence that would otherwise be considered hearsay were ti to be presented in Court.

  11. @Doug Mataconis:

    Okay thanks. That being the case, Paterno should have reported it to the police himself when it became clear no one else was doing anything about it.

  12. @casimir:

    I don’t think he’ll have a choice. This was the last year of his current contract. It looked unlikely he’d be getting a new one even before this came out, and after this it’s probably only a question of whether he wants to jump or be pushed.

  13. @Stormy Dragon:

    Ordinarily I’d say that if JoePa wanted to stay, they’d let him stay. He should have retired years ago, but nobody has the guts to tell him. This scandal, though, may make a return impossible.

  14. Sean Carroll says:

    We may eventually conclude that Paterno acted reprehensibly in not responding more forcefully to the allegations. But it’s not clear just yet. The DA handling the case doesn’t think so, and Paterno will be a witness for the prosecution:

    http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2011/11/paterno_praised_for_acting_app.html

  15. @Sean Carroll:

    Well all I can say to that is that I would hate to be a defense attorney who has Joe Paterno testify against my client in a trial in Pennsylvania.

  16. @Doug Mataconis:

    Again, I’ve been following Penn State football since I was a kid (indeed, I’m to be at the Nebraska game next Saturday, which I’m now anticipating far less than I was), and while there has always been a “Joe Must Go” contingent, this season it felt different. Before, even when we lost, it at least felt that the coaching staff was engaged. This year it felt different. Everyone seemed kinda distracted and going through the motions. Almost like they didn’t really care anymore.

    Even among people who were in the “Joe should stay as long as he likes” camp before, there seems to have been a growing acknowledgement that it was finally time.

    And again, that was all before this came out.

  17. ponce says:

    He should have retired years ago, but nobody has the guts to tell him. This scandal, though, may make a return impossible.

    Has the Pope stepped down yet?

  18. @Stormy Dragon:

    My cousin and her husband, who met at PSU and got married shortly thereafter, are pretty much of the same opinion as you

  19. mike says:

    Legally he may not have had to do any more than he had. I don’t know the law in PA. Just like you don’t have to do CPR on someone if you don’t want. To me it seems like you should have to help a child esp when all it takes is a phone call to the police.

    To me, for what it is worth, the measure of a person comes down to where you take a stand on tough issues. Joe Paterno put Penn State and the football program before the welfare of a child by only informing his boss; he could have gone the extra mile to make sure things were followed through on. Instead he ensured the protection of a football team. A f!#$ING football team. They play a game. Now we have kids screwed up for life.

    A good coach, yes. A great man, leader, pillar of society – well, he has proven, if these reports are true, no.

  20. anjin-san says:

    I’m not all that surprised. A few years ago I ended my association with a non-profit I was involved with because it turned out there was a known pedophile who was a volunteer in a role that had him interacting with children.

    When his history became known, I figured this guy was gone with the wind. Not so. I was told that he had “changed” and all that was behind him. Some of the women in the organization were going out to have coffee with him – after we found out what his story was.

    Sometimes, I just don’t get it.

  21. Sigh. Joe’s statement pretty much just sealed it for me. His whole focus seems to be whether he did the minimum rather than whether he did as much as he could have. “we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers.” They didn’t need prayers. They needed protection.

  22. Dean says:

    There were so many in this situation that were complicit. In fact, I think with a brief look at the timeline, one can argue that the university and those associated with the Sandusky situation were enablers.

    1998–Penn State University police investigated Sandusky for showering with a child in the athletic facilities. Nothing resulted from that investigation.

    2000–Janitor at PSU sees Sandusky in the assistant coaches’ showers molesting a child. He told other janitors, but it went no further.

    2002–Paterno informed by a graduate assistant that Sandusky was, at the very least, acting inappropriately, in the Penn St. athletic facility showers with a child. Paterno told his boss and it appears as though it was dropped.

    2009 (and earlier)–Jerry Sandusky holds overnight football camps on PSU facilities.

    For all these adults to know the story and to see this guy with children and then do nothing are as guilty as Jerry Sandusky.

  23. Drew says:

    “But Paterno said specific actions alleged to have occurred in the grand jury report were not relayed to him.

    ”It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw, but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the grand jury report,” Paterno said in the statement. ”Regardless, it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky. As coach Sandusky was retired from our coaching staff at that time, I referred the matter to university administrators.’ ”

    Before you give him a fair trial and hang him, you ought to at least consider the state of the testimony.

  24. steve says:

    What most people do not know, is that Paterno, reportedly, owns very large amounts of real estate in the area. It has always been assumed that he will leave a lot of that to the university. I suspect that may be a factor in his length of stay and any unwillingness on the part of the university to follow up.

    Steve

  25. This scandal is quickly turning into the Rosetta stone for every odd story about Penn State Football for the last 15 years. Someone on ESPN brought up this story from 2005 that I had forgotten about, but remember now that it’s been brought up:

    http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_365327.html

    Anyone want to guess who that “Former assistant coach” was and what exactly the players were harassing him about?

  26. Derrick says:

    Before you give him a fair trial and hang him, you ought to at least consider the state of the testimony. Before you give him a fair trial and hang him, you ought to at least consider the state of the testimony.

    Drew,

    Let’s add some context. A Graduate Assistant, who doesn’t appear to have a particularly close relationship other than work, calls Joe Pa on his personal phone and then actually goes to his house directly to discuss this incident. And you somehow believe that the conversation amounted to “something kind of sort of happened but I don’t want to tell any details”. C’mon. Of course, we don’t have all of the facts but to believe that this GA went to his house and told him nothing isn’t even kind of believable.

  27. Seth Carson says:

    Joe, you are saddened and upset now that charges have been filed what nine years later., Who do you think you are the Pope of Happy Valley. You may have been loyal to the University but a discrace to the human race

  28. Another weird thread to this: some people are wondering if the Sandusky case is related to the currently unsolved disappearance of then Centre County DA Ray Gricar in 2005:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Gricar

  29. superdestroyer says:

    Sandusky committed some of these acts while we was already retired from the athletic department but while maintain an office in the athletic department. Who authorized Sandusky ‘s used of the athletic departments facilities. If Paterno authorized Sandusky to be in the building after the allegation of sexual abuse, then Paterno is partially responsible. If Paterno had made Sandusky a persona non grata after hearing the original allegation, then further abuse would not have occurred.

    Penn State is demonstrataing what happens to a university puts its athletic program ahead of everything else. The incident also demonstrates what happens when the media covering a sports programs are all jock sniffing homers.

  30. KPro says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    One of the most disturbing aspects of Professional Ethics for attorneys is that, in their responsibility as agent of their client, an attorney hypothetically consulted by the grad assistant would have to put the clients best interests over a child’s best interests and would have advised the grad assis to act exactly as he did. Attorneys are not mandated reporters. The attorney would have to admit to the grad assist that the grad assist met all his obligations under PA law, that he was in no way required to follow up, that he was not a mandated reporter, and that it was not in his best interest to follow up his report by going directly to police, and indeed, employment law holds no protections for the grad assis’s job if he did step forward over his line of supervision. The grad assist would be informed that his career was most likely over if he overstepped his employers and went directly to police, because he didn’t even know the identity of the victim to corroborate his eyewitness testimony. The report would result in job loss and no solution as far as any protection for child victims, especially when it was not immediately apparent to the grad assis that his superiors did not follow up, and the rape became more remote in time and less likely to be proven and result in criminal charges. The grad assist would have been making the report on the promise that if something more happened, he MIGHT be vindicated at a distant point in time. And that is what happened at this point, right? Schultz and Curry are now gone because they failed to act on his report, he is believed and they are facing charges, and his career is intact, as it should be, and hopefully will remain so.

    Similarly, Joe Paterno would have had to admit that he did not see the assault and rape himself and would have put the young man’s career in jeopardy, without any guarantee that it did any good. Without a complaint from the young boy victim or his parents, there was no corroboration, and I have faith that if the boy had stepped forward, things would have ended differently. The grad assist would have been there for the boy. Many victims of sexual abuse/rape are shamed and blame themselves and fail to come forward. Unfortunately, this is even more true for male victims. And this hold more so for “at risk” youth.

    We all can wish that either the grad assis or janitor had lost it and beat or tried to beat Sandusky senseless, and then had to protect himself from a charge of battery (and defense of others is an absolute defense) and all the facts came to light sooner rather than later, but that isn’t what happened. What did happen is that the grad assist and janitor became distraught and unable to function, as most of us would. Their power to put an end to it was lost when the response was not immediate and others were left to make decisions and considered politics and expediency. It appears that neither the grad assis or the janitor knew that there was a 1998 incident to corroborate their testimony. To ask someone to make such a risky police report above the heads of their line of supervision is too much to ask. With regard to the grad assis and janitor, we need to be putting on their shoes. I think that we the public should be morally responsible as well, and not blame the people that TRIED to do the right thing. There are lots of smoke and mirrors to get through when dealing with university administration. How many of us at 27 realize that our mentors are really just out for themselves and don’t care. It takes a little more time to become that jaded.

    Thank you to the grad assis for being a upstanding citizen and continuing to be an upstanding citizen so that the grand jury had no problem believing your account of what transpired. THAT is what finally put an end to this terror.

  31. Tbonepar says:

    Two observations, one legal, the other ‘moral’.

    Curley and Shultz are charged with perjury for denying to the Grand Jury that the grad assistant told them he witnessed sodomy, instead testifying that the grad assistant described the behavior as ‘horsing around’.

    The Grad Assistant testified that he reported ‘what he saw’ to Paterno. The Grand Jury found the grad assistant’s testimony to be ‘extremely credible’. Yet Paterno testified that the grad assistant only reported to him that he saw Sandusky ‘fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy”. That falls far short of describing sodomy and more resembles how Curley and Schultz characterized what the grad assistant told them.

    Why then hasn’t Paterno also been charged with perjury when it sounds like his testimony wasn’t that much different, if at all, from theirs? Perhaps he didn’t deny being told about sodomy, but just said he didn’t really recall. Maybe he was saved by adding ‘of a sexual nature’ to his narrative.

    The ‘moral’ question/observation I have is this. The Grand Jury Presentment is silent about what Paterno, Curley, and Schultz did in the week or so between hearing from Paterno and calling in the graduate assistant. Sandusky had been Paterno’s closest and most trusted assistant. Aside from any moral or legal obligation to go the police or Child Services or even the boy’s parents, should not Paterno have pulled Sandusky aside in private, told him that even if what he did was innocent ‘horsing around’, in everyone’s best interests, most especially Penn State’s, he should disassociate himself entirely from the school?

  32. Barry says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “I would imagine that as a non-administrative employee of the University it may be the case that Paterno’s obligation was to report the matter to his superiors, ”

    Gee, I thought that Paterno was, you know, in charge of something at Penn State. I didn’t know that he was just an employee with no supervisory or administrative powers.

  33. Drew says:

    Derrick –

    Your truncation of due process is noted. BTW – feel the same about Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy………ahem, Barack Obama?

  34. Perhaps Paterno should have gone farther, much father, in his efforts to bring the allegations brought to his attention to law enforcement. However, what is really starting to make people uneasy is the fact that those involved in the alleged cover-up are already making statements, through their respective council, that they deserve protection under the statutory term limits. Perhaps they as well as Sandusky should also be charged with Crimes Against Humanity as these specific crimes both effect and infect humanity for generations to come. I don’t believe there are statutory time constraints for these charges.

  35. mike says:

    go to amazon.com and look up jerry sandusky’s book Touched and read the reviews. Pretty funny.

  36. Barry says:

    Doug: “Perhaps that’s true, but I’m not even sure that there’s an NCAA rule that would cover a situation like this or whether they would even bother to try to prosecute it. ”

    I’m willing to bet $20 that NCAA rules have some sort of cover-all clause about non-criminality, or ‘behavior unbecoming….’. And I’ll bet another $20 that such rules have been used – against players, or schmuck programs, not the big boys, of course.

  37. Barry says:

    And I’ll bet another $20 that those rules will not be used against Paterno, who will be allowed to fade away.

  38. holly says:

    what happened to DA gricar??? ….creepy !!!