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What Are Penn State’s Priorities?

Jerry Sandusky, right, the former Penn State defensive coordinator, has been charged with sexually abusing eight boys. (Andy Colwell/The Patriot-News, via Associated Press)

Sex cover-ups happen at the highest level of government, the church, and, equally problematically, at the university level.  Penn State has been swept into such a controversy and scandal this week with the arrest and filing of 40 criminal charges against a former assistant football coach and charges with likely arrests to follow of its athletic director, Timothy Curley, and of Gary Schultz, the university’s senior vice president for finance and business. Prosecutors claim that the latter two lied to a grand jury, covering up their knowledge of sex-abuse allegations against a former football coach. So far, eight boys have come forward.  And the grand jury report is here.  As a warning, its contents are deeply disturbing.

At the heart of the case is Gerald (Jerry) Sandusky, the 67-year-old former coach of Penn State’s football team, who pleaded not-guilty to charges that he sexually abused more than a handful of boys from a charitable group home, the Second Mile Foundation, which he founded in the 70s.  The charges date back before his retirement in 1999, and after. Prosecutors and the mother of one of the boys, along with eyewitnesses ranging from a janitor to a graduate student, claim that he abused the boys at the group home facility, on Penn State premises, at a high school, on trips with the football team and elsewhere.  According to the grand jury, Sandusky plied the boys with special trips to football games, computers, and other items.

The grand jury conducted a multi-year investigation, “during the course of [it], the Grand Jury heard evidence that Sandusky indecently fondled Victim 1 on a number of occasions, performed oral sex on Victim 1 on a number of occasions and had Victim 1 perform oral sex on him on at least one occasion.”

Most surprising is not the claim that a coach was the party to child sex abuse, or even assertions that the athletic director swept the matter under the rug, by warning Sandusky that he couldn’t bring boys on campus any longer rather than alerting police.  Pedophilia and abuse of vulnerable children occur at all levels of society—and unlike in movies, the perpetrators are not the easily identifiable, shifty looking characters effortlessly identified in crowds.  Often, they appear trustworthy and interested in the well-being of children.

More curious is the statement released by Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, who claims the perjury charges against Curley and Schultz are “groundless”  and that he has “complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations” against Sandusky.  Really?  According to the grand jury, Schultz said that the allegations were “not that serious” and that he and his colleague “had no indication that a crime had occurred.”

The president’s confidence in association with any of the players in this tragedy seems premature and imprudent at best.  But, it appears that judgment and a commitment to more than football was lacking all around.

And here’s why.  “One of the most compelling and disturbing pieces of testimony in this investigation came from an eyewitness to a late-night sexual assault that allegedly occurred in March of 2002, in the locker room of the Lasch Football Building on the University Park Campus,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said Saturday in announcing the charges. “Hearing what sounded like sexual activity in the showers of a building that was supposed to be empty, a graduate assistant reportedly observed Sandusky sexually assaulting a naked boy who appeared to be about 10 years old.”

Troubled by what he saw, the 28-year-old graduate assistant went to Joe Paterno’s home the next morning and reported the incident.  Joe Paterno, the head coach, reported the incident to the athletic director.

Unfortunately, none of the persons involved in this case bothered to report the incident to authorities, which is required by Pennsylvania law.  Prosecutors allege that not only did Curley and Schultz fail to report the sexual assault but that they “later made false statements to a grand jury that was investigating a series of assaults on young boys.”

It’s possible that they failed to report the sex-abuse claims, because Sandusky retired in 1999, and although he maintained an office on campus, he was no longer their “employee” at the time of the alleged shower molestations.  But, also likely is that Penn State officials were more concerned about the image of their football organization.  Paterno has recorded more wins than any other college coach and protecting that reputation may have meant more to administrators than rescuing vulnerable boys from the deviant sexual grasp and exploitation of a former employee.  As a legal matter, that university officials had knowledge that sexual abuse of minors might have occurred on their premises, but failed to act, should lead to civil claims as well as criminal charges—if the statute of limitations has not tolled.

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