Commentary

Penn State's failure of power

Updated: November 11, 2011, 8:31 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Even now, as the heartbreaking details emerge, pages of grand jury testimony are absorbed and parsed, and a seamy picture of alleged child abuse and the subsequent failures to act comes into clear, indefensible focus, the reflex of the Penn State hierarchy involved is one of tone deafness.

That focus revolves not around the children who most needed the adults to be grown-ups but around protecting the power: the big, untouchable football program with its legendary coach with the big name and the big reputation, the do-gooder charity with the board of directors with the big names on it.

[+] EnlargePaterno, Spanier, Curley
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State president Graham Spanier, left, and athletic director Tim Curley, center, celebrated coach Joe Paterno's 409th win.

Surrounded by so much bigness, virtually everyone in a position of authority at Penn State has, thus far, seemed to come up very small. Jerry Sandusky might not be innocent, but, as of today, he is legally not guilty. He was charged with 40 counts of felony sex abuse against minors. Despite anger and public opinion, Sandusky deserves the due process of the court of law as well as the presumption of innocence until his case is complete.

But Penn State president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, vice president for business and finance Gary Schultz and coach Joe Paterno should be held to a higher standard. So should The Second Mile, a charity that was founded to help children. Whether or not Sandusky is convicted, each was faced with a critical choice with damning information and chose to protect the program. This is what power has become. More accurately, it is what power has always been, in existence to protect itself.

There is no defense for the number of people in positions of authority who had an opportunity to stop Sandusky and did not.

The university, responding to information provided by a graduate student in 2002 that he witnessed Sandusky performing anal sex in the shower on a boy about 10 years old, did nothing. The university did not call authorities and did not ever sever ties with Sandusky, allowing him to maintain an office on campus for years.

The entire edifice of the Penn State monument is crumbling, yet no one involved seems capable of producing the most obvious, and decent, response, to acknowledge that each of these men failed to uphold his responsibilities spectacularly. They failed their communities, and they failed the eight young boys the state is accusing Sandusky of sexually abusing.

The legendary Paterno failed. He was the first of the Penn State athletic inner circle to be told of the shower incident nine years ago, and all he did was tell his university superiors. Then, according to his son, the great character builder and shaper of young people essentially never gave it a second thought, going back to designing plays for third-and-short and trying to devise ways to beat Wisconsin. Four days after Sandusky's indictment, instead of taking true responsibility and making an immediate and public plan to put the alleged victims first, the coach is scurrying from the responsibilities of leadership he ostensibly has built a life around.

Curley and Schultz, who face charges of perjury, failed. The grand jury report states on pages 6-7 that, a week and a half after telling Paterno what he had seen, the graduate assistant "reported to Curley and Schultz that he witnessed what he believed to be Sandusky having anal sex with a boy in the Lasch Building showers." According to the grand jury report, Curley later told the graduate assistant that he had met with Sandusky to advise Sandusky that he "was prohibited from bringing youth onto the Penn State campus from that point forward." But neither official took the allegations to the police or reported them to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. In other words, all Penn State did was to ensure that if Sandusky sexually abused a child in the future, at least it wouldn't take place on campus.

[+] EnlargeThe Second Mile
AP Photo/Genaro C. ArmasThe Second Mile didn't distance itself from founder Jerry Sandusky until 2008.

Spanier, president of the university since 1995, failed, too. He might not face charges, but he has known about this incident for nine years and, as the indictment became public this weekend, chose to use his public comments not to condemn a systematic failure but to defend Schultz and Curley without significantly mentioning the pain and plight of the alleged victims.

Finally, The Second Mile failed. The charity, founded by Sandusky in 1977 and which state prosecutors say he used to abuse eight boys over a 15-year period, was told directly of the 2002 incident by Curley and Schultz. Yet the organization -- which counts Paterno, Franco Harris, Mark Wahlberg and other famous lights as honorary members of its board of directors -- did nothing to keep Sandusky away from children or away from the foundation for another six years. This week, now that the entire shameful facade has crumbled, it released a statement claiming ignorance: "At no time was The Second Mile made aware of the very serious allegations contained in the Grand Jury report."

It is incongruous that any adult with basic common sense -- especially those who supposedly have worked with children and young adults for decades -- could conclude that there was no wrongdoing after a report that a grown man was inappropriately in a shower with a child. Being in a shower inappropriately with a child or adolescent is the finding of wrongdoing. Paterno, Schultz and Curley all appear to be using the same defense: that the graduate student who came forward did not detail specifically what he saw. Which begs the question: After being told that an adult, who to that point had worked with children for 25 years, was caught showering in your locker room with a child for any reason, just how much more specificity did Paterno, Schultz and Curley actually need?

Regardless of the ultimate credibility of the graduate student's grand jury testimony (and a critical gap exists between Paterno's and the graduate student's testimonies), Schultz, Curley, Spanier and Paterno are unwilling to admit being blinded by the power of Penn State football. That power prevented other, less powerful people from coming forward. Their first, fatal reaction was the impulse to protect the program, keep it from embarrassment, to protect personal relationships and now what's left of the precious, sacred institution.

The power of the names Penn State and Paterno were, it is now revealed through chilling grand jury testimony, far more important than the children now forever renamed Victim 1 and Victim 2. According to the state grand jury investigation, at least four eyewitnesses say they saw Sandusky committing inappropriate acts with children, and Sandusky admitted another to one victim's mother. Yet an entire community was cowed by the power of the institution. The past several days at Penn State have been a case study of Joe Paterno and the failure of power.

For each expression of outrage, we've been here before with the failures by churches, police departments and teams. Somewhere, each institution committed the fatal mistake of believing that power was not a privilege to be handled with great care and humility but instead a license to be above trust. The powerful often have forgotten whom they are supposed to serve.

The price of this willful forgetfulness is most devastatingly evidenced by the Catholic Church and its handling of its own sexual abuse scandal. The church has not been the same, nor will it ever be the same, not simply because the church used its power and moral authority to betray its membership and protect the offending clergy until it no longer could but also because it forgot who exactly needed the protection.

[+] EnlargeJerry Sandusky
AP Photo/Paul VathisJerry Sandusky, left, was defensive coordinator at Penn State for coach Joe Paterno before he retired.

Earlier this year, journalist Lisa Davis wrote "The Sins of Brother Curtis," a painful, difficult and necessary book on sexual predator Frank Curtis and his serial molestation of children over decades. Curtis was allowed to operate within the framework of the Mormon Church both through Penn State-like negligence and, more disturbingly, through the church's belief that placing him around children, despite his crimes, was essential to Curtis' religious salvation. As Curtis' deviations grew more pronounced, the Church of Latter-day Saints mirrored the response of Curley and Schultz and Spanier and Paterno. The church used its power to crush accountability, and its impulse was to protect the brand instead of the children. Many of those abuse victims ended up with lifelong drug and legal problems, their lives just a broken bottle on the side of the freeway, receiving about as much regard from the LDS.

The special power of any institution lies in its moral authority. The Los Angeles Police Department operated under federal oversight for eight years in the early 2000s because of abuses and corruption in the Rampart division. And a Justice Department report earlier this year -- the second such visit by federal authorities in less than a decade -- detailed misconduct by police in New Orleans after years of denial and reliance on muscle to crush accountability. The moral credibility of more than one police force has been rendered nonexistent not merely because of its actions but because of its reflex to protect itself and not the public. Among the worst abuses of power, multiple police officers were convicted of murders committed during Hurricane Katrina.

Sports might not be as important as law enforcement or religion, but the betrayal of trust is just as deep. For three decades, the Boston Red Sox employed a sexual predator who solicited sex from the young boys he would hire to work the clubhouse during spring training. It would become common knowledge that Donald Fitzpatrick was dangerous around children. One of his victims alleged that Red Sox players such as Jim Rice and Sammy Stewart would warn the clubhouse kids to avoid Fitzpatrick. When one of the kids confronted Red Sox management in 1971 with the charge that Fitzpatrick had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with them -- some as young as 4 years old -- in the Red Sox clubhouse and at the Holiday Inn where the team was housed during spring training, the Red Sox followed the Penn State template and more. Not only did the team fail to alert authorities or disassociate from Fitzpatrick but the Red Sox fired the victims who came forward.

Only in 1991, when another victim, a young aide Fitzpatrick was suspected of recruiting, held up a sign during a nationally televised Red Sox-Angels game that read "Don Fitzpatrick sexually assaulted me" did the Red Sox act, paying out a $100,000 settlement. After more than 30 years, in 2003, the Red Sox settled a $3.15 million lawsuit with the seven Florida victims. In 2002, Fitzpatrick pleaded guilty in Florida to four counts of sexual battery on a child.

In the coming weeks and months, much discussion will center on the survival of Spanier and especially Paterno. Paterno had two honorable, immediate options: acknowledgement of his massive failure and resignation. He did neither at first opportunity, more proof that being bigger than his university comes at no cost to him. Never mind the ruins he will leave behind. Paterno has said that if the allegations are true Sandusky then fooled everyone, but he didn't. He didn't fool Paterno because Paterno has known about this since 2002. He was told face-to-face, point blank without ambiguity.

Should Paterno finally do the right thing and resign, thousands of eyes will be wet with sadness and nostalgia, pain and hurt for the old man. Magnitudes fewer people will talk about Victim 1 or Victim 2 or Victims 3 through 8, or the lives they now face because football and the big coach from the big football school with the big name were considered more important. Few people in the stands will talk about the horrific Justice Department statistics: Children who suffer abuse, sexual abuse included, are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28 percent more likely to be arrested as an adult and 30 percent more likely to commit violent crime. These numbers tell us there is a good chance that lives have been ruined before even being given a chance. This is the price of Penn State's failure, the failure of power. Whatever tears exist for Paterno and his football legacy should be saved for the children.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.

MORE COMMENTARY »

ALSO SEE