A failure to act at Penn State as scandal unfolded

Michael Pilato paints over the image of Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator at Penn State, on a mural on College Avenue in State College, Pa., on Wednesday. Pilato is the original artist of the mural.
Michael Pilato paints over the image of Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator at Penn State, on a mural on College Avenue in State College, Pa., on Wednesday. Pilato is the original artist of the mural. (LAKE FONG / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Posted: November 10, 2011

It took only minutes Wednesday for a man armed with a ladder and a paintbrush to do what in 13 years coach Joe Paterno and Pennsylvania State University president Graham B. Spanier hadn't done:

Remove Jerry Sandusky from the State College campus.

The muralist Michael Pilato brushed over the visage of the former assistant coach in a work commemorating university heroes. By the end of the night, both Paterno and Spanier would be gone as well.

Inevitably, sports historians, news accounts, and university officials will point to Paterno's and Spanier's failure in 2002 to notify law enforcement when they were told of Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of a child as the fatal mistake. They won't be wrong.

But beyond that, Sandusky's case and the administration's response played out along lines that have become too familiar.

Like the Roman Catholic Church before it, Penn State and Paterno's football program fell victim to bureaucratic inertia seemingly more focused on self-preservation than swift action, scholars and victims' advocates say.

In Sandusky's case, prosecutors allege that organizational hesitancy allowed a predator to continue to prey.

"Any hierarchical organization has a potential for this power to go wrong," said Robert J. Shoop, a Kansas State University scholar who has studied sex abuse in sports. "But the sports situation only exaggerates it. Part of the whole concept of being on a team is giving up your individuality, doing what you're told, and believing your coach has your best interest at heart."

Much speculation has centered on what Paterno and Spanier knew and when. In his statement Wednesday announcing his retirement, before the board dismissed him, the legendary football coach described his inaction as "one of the great sorrows of my life."

"With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more," he said.

He may have fulfilled his legal obligation by notifying university administrators of Sandusky's alleged crime, as Attorney General Linda Kelly said at a news conference Monday. But his resignation only fueled critics' judgment that he had left his moral responsibility unmet.

Richard Serbin, a plaintiffs' attorney who has handled dozens of clergy sex-abuse cases in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which includes State College, said too often individuals assume that telling a higher authority absolves them of further responsibility.

"Just saying 'I did my part' isn't sufficient," he said. "Coach Paterno reported it to someone else, and then ignored the fact that Sandusky was still working with youth elsewhere even if it wasn't on the main campus."

Prosecutors allege that Sandusky molested at least eight boys he met through the Second Mile, his charity for wayward youths, between 1998 and 2008. Many of those alleged encounters purportedly took place on Penn State's campus.

But even while investigators fielded accusations of a decade of impropriety, the man once considered Paterno's heir apparent remained a fixture at the field house.

Well after Sandusky purportedly admitted to university police in 1998 that he had disrobed and hugged a naked 11-year-old in a university shower, he maintained an office on campus and hosted Second Mile football camps with children on at least two satellite campuses.

Paterno's son Scott said Tuesday that his father did not know about the 1998 probe and would have taken decisive action earlier if he had.

But the grand jury report is littered with red flags - high school coaches, maintenance staff, and even other Second Mile boys who either testified to having witnessed sexual assault or found Sandusky's behavior suspicious. Some made note, some reported what they had seen to superiors, but in every case their piece of the puzzle somehow failed to reach law enforcement.

"In bureaucracy, responsibility gets divided. There's always another layer above you," said Tom Barth, professor of public administration at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. "Everybody is responsible for their little piece of the pie."

In 2002, current assistant coach Mike McQueary - then a graduate assistant - came to Paterno with a specific story of having seen Sandusky in the shower, in a sexual act with a 10-year-old boy.

Paterno, in turn, told Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and a university vice president, Gary Schultz. He never followed up.

Both Curley and Schultz briefed Spanier; both have left their jobs since they were charged last weekend under indictment for perjury and failure to report the accusations against Sandusky.

"By telling someone else, Mike McQueary thinks, I've done my part. Joe Paterno thinks, I've done my part. But is that enough?" Barth asked. Had McQueary, Spanier or Paterno himself witnessed abuse as individuals - outside of the environment of their jobs, titles and employment prospects - they might have reacted differently, said Barth.

Ultimately, that is what drew Pilato, the muralist, back Wednesday to change his work near the university bookstore wall: an individual appeal from the mother of one of Sandusky's alleged victims. "I think we need to remember that pedophilia is a sickness," he said. "It's something we have to address as a society."

Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck

at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @inqmontco on Twitter. Read his blog, "MontCo Memo," at www.philly.com/montcomemo.

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