Annette John-Hall: The Louis Freeh report shows Penn State put children second

Joe Paterno with his team in 2009.
Joe Paterno with his team in 2009. (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press)
Posted: July 14, 2012

I'm hoping that somewhere between heaven and hell, Joe Paterno starts his own support group.

"Hello, my name is Joe and I'm . . . a disgraceful enabler."

That's what we know for sure, now that the findings of an independent investigation are out. We know that the Penn State football coach knew for years that Jerry Sandusky had abused children, yet he did nothing about it. Even worse was the cover-up at arguably the state's most powerful institution by the powerful men who ran it: Paterno, the righteous educator, the molder of young men with character; president Graham B. Spanier; athletic director Timothy Curley; and vice president Gary Schultz.

Together, they conspired to shield a brazen serial child abuser rather than protect innocent, unsuspecting kids because it was the "humane" thing to do.

They never once asked about the well-being of the victims. Never even asked their names. How humane is that?

It's sickening to even think about. As intelligent, responsible adults, you've got to wonder how we allow such moral failings to not only continue, but to hurt and destroy for so long. How we can knowingly rationalize a culture of arrogance that protects an institution over children? It was a culture of neglect that started with the Penn State board of trustees and filtered all the way down to the custodial staff.

Damning reports

One of the investigation's most damning eyewitness reports of Sandusky's crimes occurred in 2000. A janitor saw the former coach - who by then had retired but was given carte blanche at the athletic facilities - performing oral sex on a young boy.

Horrified and visibly shaken, the janitor, a Korean War veteran, told a coworker, "I've seen people with their guts bowed out, arms dismembered. . . . I just witnessed something in there I'll never forget."

Neither custodian reported the attack. Fear of the impenetrable institution and the powerful who run it.

"I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone," one of the janitors said, according to the report. "Football runs this university."

"If that's the culture on the bottom," head investigator Louis J. Freeh said Thursday, "then God help the culture at the top."

Fear and arrogance?

At the chilling news conference, the telephone number of Childline, a state support agency for child-abuse victims (800-932-0313), loomed on a screen in the background, a stark reminder of where the focus should have been all along.

"We were reminded on a daily basis that the duty of adults is to protect children," Freeh said.

It seems so obvious. Yet, in case after case, in ways big and small, that notion gets skewed by adults in authority choosing what? - Arrogance? Fear? - over the well-being of children every single day.

Paterno and his gang sent children into harm's way. And if we needed more proof that his concern was more for football and the institution than for children, read the pathetic letter he wrote before his death, released by his family Wednesday.

And how can we not mention the recently convicted Msgr. William J. Lynn, who, with other high-ranking clergy, moved pedophile priests from parish to parish like chess pieces, making defenseless pawns of the child victims in their path?

The same kind of behavior occurs in unconventional institutions, too, like our neighborhoods. How can it be that of the dozens in a crowd of 200 people who recently saw a 2-year-old girl shot at a Logan block party, not a single person has come forward? A $10,000 reward can't even lure them to provide an anonymous tip. Make no mistake: Another child victim is in line to get gunned down, and the adults who sit silently are to blame.

The Penn State investigation set forth a number of recommendations, one of which was to dump "the Penn State Way" of insular arrogance and create a "values-and-ethics-centered community where everyone is engaged in placing the needs of children over the needs of adults."

A long way of saying when it comes to protecting children, the decision is as simple as it gets.

But, yet again, with another scandal of young victims being forced to bear scars for life, we know it's not so.

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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