John Baer: Could Gov. Corbett have done more to spur Penn State action in Jerry Sandusky case?

Gov. Corbett joined Penn State's board in January 2011 when he took office as governor. Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Gov. Corbett joined Penn State's board in January 2011 when he took office as governor. Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 13, 2012

THE POWERS at Penn State knew young boys were being raped by one of their own and did nothing about it for more than a decade.

They "repeatedly concealed facts," showed "callous and shocking disregard" for child victims and actively agreed on a coverup to avoid bad publicity.

It is, as it turns out, as bad as we suspected.

I suspect at least two groups are having difficulty digesting Louis Freeh's report on the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which implicates former PSU president Graham Spanier, former VP Gary Schultz, suspended athletic director Tim Curley and the late football coach Joe Paterno.

The first group consists of true-blue believers in the PSU brand and especially the legendary Paterno and his "success with honor."

They wonder, "How could JoePa let this happen?"

The second group consists of those with no links to the school, living outside the magnetic draw of Nittany Nation, which is to say much of the Philly region.

They wonder, "What was worth protecting above the welfare of children?"

First the believers.

It is now hard to cling to the image, forged over decades, of Paterno as teacher and moral molder of men, a unique leader holding himself, his team and those around him to the highest behavioral standards.

His reputation and success collapse under evidence that Joe was party to and, in one critical instance, instigator in keeping the truth about Sandusky's sickening crimes hidden.

A plan to alert child-welfare officials after Sandusky was witnessed sexually assaulting a boy in a football-building shower room in 2001 was abandoned after discussion with Joe.

Freeh, at a news conference Thursday, noted that after Joe learned of the incident, he said he had to "figure out what we want to do."

Freeh asked, rhetorically, "What was to figure out?"

And when asked if Paterno wielded enough power to stop a coverup, Freeh said, "He could have done so if he wished."

There still will be those who say Freeh is using the tactic of "blame the dead guy."

I'm not among them.

A friend and PSU alumnus emailed Thursday: "Still hard for me to believe that they knew as much as they knew and did as little as they did, but the report seems solid and thoroughly documented. I think it will force PSU loyalists to confront the full reality and horror of the situation."

I think so, too.

As for those who can't fathom what's worth hiding hideous acts that harm and endanger children, the pervasive power and draw of PSU across so much of Pennsylvania no doubt played a part.

Not only did the university become a "happy valley" unto itself, it also developed devotion, mostly through football, unmatched by any state entity.

As I've written before, on several fall Saturdays, State College becomes Pennsylvania's third-largest city. Its stadium is a shrine for 107,000 who fill parking lots to the horizon and tailgate, often Friday to Sunday.

PSU football coverage in markets outside Philly is extensive; PSU gear — hats, shirts, bumper stickers — ubiquitous in most Pennsylvania counties.

Football success with a clean reputation brought homage and money.

The program generates annual revenue of $70 million.

A child-sex scandal linked to football threatened all that's been built, those who built it and those who maintain it.

Inexcusably, university leaders chose maintenance over truth.

Freeh also hit PSU's board of trustees for failing to govern.

Gov. Corbett, who as attorney general oversaw Sandusky's investigation, joined Penn State's board in January 2011 when he took office as governor.

He declined Thursday to comment specifically on Freeh's report, saying he hadn't read it. And he bristled when questioned about the pace of the Sandusky investigation. He's always maintained that building such cases take time.

The Sandusky investigation first was reported in March 2011. Corbett did not attend a May 2011 board meeting that included a briefing on the probe. But he told the Freeh investigation that he would have asked questions or urged other trustees to do so, had he been there.

Corbett's press secretary, Kevin Harley, says that governors never attend trustee meetings (Corbett took part in one over the phone in November when Spanier and Paterno were fired) and that Corbett in May 2011 was bound by grand-jury secrecy.

Still. This was a unique time at PSU, a time for trustees to get answers and take action. The governor could have, without violating his legal obligations, at least advised the board to treat the Sandusky issue seriously.

This case and questions about its handling won't end with Freeh's report. But Freeh's report certainly ends questions about who knew what and when.

For recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls. We invite you to comment on this story at www.philly.com/psucomments. Comments will be moderated.

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