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Joe Paterno, Penn State failed miserably in sad Sandusky case

A young man tells you he just witnessed an older man molesting a boy in a shower. The boy appeared to be 10 years old.

What would you do?

There are a hundred other aspects to this Penn State story -- the legend and many good deeds of Joe Paterno, his tense relationship with his nominal "superiors," his longtime friendship with alleged child molester Jerry Sandusky, and the game of telephone that unfolded in State College after the incident. But don't let that obscure the real issue here, the only one that matters. There was an eyewitness to an unspeakable crime. Penn State knew it. And Penn State didn't do nearly enough about it.

The legal case is still unfolding. But Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said on Monday that the inaction of Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz "likely allowed a child predator to continue to victimize children for many, many years."

Kelly also said there is a difference between legal guilt and moral guilt.

We don't yet know who is legally guilty. But several prominent employees at the state university are morally guilty. And one of them is Joe Paterno.


Today, Penn State looks precisely like the Catholic Church looked for so many years. There were accusations of pedophilia. The allegations were so horrific that they threatened to undermine the reputation of the institution. The people in charge should have brought the allegations to light. But they were more worried about how the institution would look than the values it is supposed to uphold.

Jerry Sandusky was evidently living a lie, but there were all sorts of little lies that covered up the big one. Paterno told himself -- still tells himself, apparently -- that as long as he reported the incident to Curley, he had done enough. Administrators apparently decided if Sandusky was no longer allowed to bring children on campus, they had done enough.

Think about that. If Sandusky did something bad enough that you don't want him bringing kids onto campus, why wouldn't you call the police? Why wouldn't you track down the victim, find his family, see how they want to deal with this?

How can you stay quiet when Sandusky worked with children every day -- and had them live in his home -- when you don't trust him enough to allow him to bring children onto your campus?

Penn State took that simple question -- "What would you do?" -- and covered it with so many layers of nonsense that nobody could see the question anymore.

What happened? First, let's push some of the nonsense to the side. In the statement he released Sunday night, Paterno said, "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."

This is true, and also completely irrelevant. This isn't about whether Paterno should have known, for many years, that Sandusky was allegedly a pedophile. We've all heard a hundred stories of people who kept their pedophilia secret from those who supposedly knew them the best. It's almost a cliche when a pedophile (or serial killer) gets arrested and a next-door says "I can't believe it. Everyone around here thought he was a good neighbor." That is exactly what Sandusky's next-door neighbor for 30 years, Clarence Trotter, told The New York Times.

That has nothing to do with this story. This is about a specific incident, and everybody agrees: Paterno knew about it. The question is: What did he know?

This is where you start to see the seeds of Penn State's defense. In his statement, Paterno: said "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."

The key passage there: "He at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the grand jury report."

Curley has been charged with perjury, for saying he did not know about the specific allegation. In this case, it seems that both Paterno and Curley argue they didn't hear the specific vile allegation against Sandusky -- that they were just told there was an uncomfortable scene.

Maybe so. And again: Curley and Schultz were charged with perjury, but Paterno has not been charged with anything.

Still, it is hard to evaluate this situation because of the unusual dynamic around the Penn State football program. It is no great secret that for at least a decade, and maybe two, Penn State administrators have felt powerless against Paterno. He and school president Graham Spanier have privately battled for years.

Forget about telling Paterno when to retire. Nobody can tell Paterno anything, because he is Joe Paterno.

Paterno has done far more good than harm in his career. But if you have been paying attention, you know that he has a bad habit of minimizing serious allegations.

When Penn State receiver Tony Johnson was arrested for driving under the influence a few years ago, Paterno said he would discipline him "just because I have to send a message to the squad that it is inappropriate to be out in the middle of the week having a couple of drinks."

Police said Johnson had a blood-alcohol level of .136, well above the legal limit.

Before a bowl game against Penn State in 2006, Florida State linebacker A.J. Nicholson was accused of sexual assault. Remember: This was not Paterno's player. He didn't have to say anything.

But he said this: "There are so many people gravitating to these kids. Maybe he didn't know what he was getting into, Nicholson. Somebody will knock on the door. A cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do?

"Thank God, they don't knock on my door. I'd refer them to a couple of other rooms.

"But that's too bad. You hate to see that, you really do. You'd like to see a kid end up his career. And he's a heck of a football player, he really is. It's just too bad. That's all I can say. It's just too bad."

To sum up, we have:

1. An administration that feels it can't control Joe Paterno.

2. Paterno's habit of minimizing serious allegations.

As I said, I don't know exactly what happened. But it's reasonable to imagine that the climate at Penn State played a big part in it.

Sandusky was retired in 2002, when the incident in question took place. But he continued to spend time in the Penn State football building, where the incident took place. Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel reported Monday that Sandusky was seen working out in the Penn State weight room last week.

Penn State is a notoriously airtight program.

Nobody spends that much time in the football building unless Joe Paterno approves of it.

Paterno will apparently avoid charges in this case. But his reign at Penn State will end poorly, just as Woody Hayes' reign at Ohio State ended poorly, and as Bob Knight's reign at Indiana ended poorly. In all three cases, you could see a lousy ending coming -- though of course, it was hard to imagine this particular lousy ending.

There is no joy in saying that. But there is no joy anywhere in this awful story. Strip away the fame, the money and the popularity of Penn State's football program, and you have a sordid allegation that demanded a powerful response from powerful people.

What would you do? For most of us, the answer is simple: A lot more.