As you no doubt noticed, Jerry Sandusky, once a renowned defensive line coach at Penn State University under Joe Paterno, was convicted on 22 June on forty-four counts for the sexual abuse of young boys. The next incident in this unfolding drama will be the trial of Gary Shultz, formerly vice-president at Penn State, and Tim Curley, the former athletic director, for perjury in their testimony to the grand jury and for failing, as required by law, to report an incident of sexual predation on Sandusky’s part to the Pennsylvania child welfare department.
I would not be surprised if Graham Spanier, the former president of the university, were added to the list of those charged with the latter crime. If Joe Paterno were alive, alas, he, too, might be in the prosecutors’ line of fire. Let me explain.
As you may remember, everything turns on an incident that allegedly took place in the gymnasium showers at Penn State on 8 February 2001 – when assistant coach Mike McQueary, who had played football under Paterno and Sandusky, spied Sandusky in the showers with a boy, buggering the child. The next morning, a Saturday, at the urging of his father, McQueary went to Paterno to report what he had witnessed. According to his testimony, he stopped short of being graphic. But it is clear that Paterno knew precisely what he meant. He later testified that the incident was of a sexual nature. He called Curley and sent McQueary to report to him, and about a week later McQueary met with Curley and Spanier.
McQueary claims to have been more explicit in his report to these two men than in what he had said to Paterno. As CNN puts it in an article that you should read and then re-read a second time, the assistant coach
has repeatedly testified he told Penn State officials he saw a boy with his hands up against a wall with Sandusky behind him and heard slapping, rhythmic sounds. He added that someone wouldn't have to be "a rocket scientist" to figure out what was going on.
Curley and Schultz, in their grand jury testimony, denied that McQueary had told them anything more than that Sandusky was horsing around with the boy in an inappropriate manner. It is this, they claimed and still claim, that justified their failure to report the incident to the Pennsylvania authorities. At the time the scandal broke, Spanier claimed, albeit not under oath, that he had no knowledge of the incident. “I was stunned and outraged to learn that any predatory act might have occurred in a university facility or by someone associated with the university, “ he said. “I would never hesitate to report a crime if I had any suspicion that one had been committed.”
It has long seemed likely that Curley, Schultz, and Spanier were lying. At Penn State, Joe Paterno was a demigod, and everyone knew that he was old school. For that reason, McQueary was reticent in his report to Paterno. He could not bring himself to speak in graphic terms to the old man he so revered. But he was not so reticent that Paterno missed the point. As he told the grand jury, the incident was of a sexual nature, and he knew it. If McQueary got the point across to Paterno, he can hardly have failed to have done the same in his conversation with Curley and Schultz. Indeed, they knew what to expect. Paterno had told them the incident was of a sexual nature. Moreover, as you may remember, this was not the first such incident they had looked into. There is, in fact, every reason to think that Sandusky’s sudden retirement in the late 1990s was a consequence of this earlier incident. Nor is it credible that they failed to consult Spanier. All three men had been in place at the time of the earlier incident. This was not a minor matter, and they surely knew it.
This is what I thought when the scandal first broke, and it is now clear that my instincts were correct – for Louis Freeh, the former FBI director hired by Penn State to get to the bottom of things, appears to have found a smoking gun. If the article posted by CNN mentioned above can be trusted, he has discovered a series of e-mails exchanged between Curley, Schultz, and Spanier in the period stretching from 26-28 February 2001 in which the Sandusky affair was discussed in a coded but transparent fashion. The issue being debated was whether Penn State should report an incident of misconduct by someone associated with the university to the child welfare department. Initially, the three men resolved to do so; then, they decided to take “a more humane” course and deal with the matter privately – after Curley met face-to-face with Joe Paterno. This would explain the cryptic confession made by Paterno on the eve of his death. “I should have done more,” he said. Indeed, if my analysis is correct, he should have done a great deal more.
On the face of it, it would seem that Paterno had nothing much to do with this. He was, after all, an employee of the university – an underling well down the chain of command -- and he had done what was right. He had sent McQuery to the athletic director. Paterno reported to Curley, Curley to Schultz, and Schultz to Spanier. Moreover, as I said, Paterno was old school. We do not find him communicating directly with the university’s President. He met with his immediate boss, the athletic director. He was a minor figure in the drama, and he acted the part.
But to think in this way would be to miss what actually went on. Technically, Paterno worked for his superiors. In practice, however, they were beholden to him. At Penn State, as I said, Joe Paterno was a demigod. He had coached there for decades, and he had a record of wins that beggars the imagination. Moreover, he was a moral force in the lives of his players. He took care of them, and he saw to it that they conducted themselves in a proper fashion. When a football player got into trouble, he would intervene, fend off the authorities intent on imposing a punishment, and handle it himself – and, on the whole, he handled it effectively, using collective punishment to get the members of the football team to keep one another in line. Playing under JoePa was not just an education in football; it was a moral education, and everyone knew it.
Here is an illustrative anecdote that ought to give you a sense of the man’s stature, influence, and judgment. Some years back, Penn State set out to cut its budget, and the authorities there decided to eliminate the classics department. When word reached Paterno, who had studied Latin assiduously in his youth at a Catholic high school, he made one public comment – that he did not want to coach at a university that had no classics department. Penn State backed off on its plans immediately; donors magically appeared eager to endow faculty lines in the classics department; and it is still there.
Pause and think about this. Where else in the United States would a coach be the defender of a university’s academic integrity? Where else would the administration and the faculty accede to a coach’s wishes in curricular matters? At Penn State, Paterno had authority – moral authority. He rarely asserted himself. But when he did and when he made a recommendation, the men to whom he reported did his bidding. The email exchange is clear. Tim Curley met with Joe Paterno, and everyone fell in line. They would take “a more humane” course, speak with Sandusky, and not report the incident.
Of course, the policy that had worked well in Paterno’s management of his team worked abysmally in this case. But it was obvious that it would. Sandusky had been involved in an earlier comparable incident. It had been handled in a similar fashion, and his predatory activity had continued. All four men involved -- Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier --knew this.
If this sad story does not remind you of what persistently happened within the Catholic Church in the second half of the twentieth century – especially, in the 1970s and the 1980s – it should. Joe Paterno came from the same paternalistic Catholic culture as the bishops who sent priestly sexual predators off for psychological counseling and then shuffled them from parish to parish as they persisted in their ways. The procedures commonly followed within that old Catholic culture may have been for the most part sound. But when it came to sexual predation, they were anything but. The bishops wanted to avoid scandal. So did Joe Paterno. The programs they managed depended on their sustaining a reputation for moral integrity – and to sustain that reputation they lied to themselves about the efficacy of the measures they took and they sacrificed their integrity in the process.
It is a sad business. Joe Paterno was a good man, perhaps a great man. Many a wayward boy grew up to become a fine man thanks to the standards he set and the methods he used. But, in the end, he fell short. He should have done more. He really should have done more.