Commentary

Paterno should have known better

Updated: November 16, 2011, 9:32 AM ET
By Roderick MacLeish | Special to ESPN The Magazine

Jim Prisching/AP ImagesThe true measure of Paterno's career begins now.

This story appears in the Nov. 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Was Joe Paterno reading the newspapers in 2002?

Did he watch any TV news that year -- the same year in which he, along with Penn State AD Tim Curley, senior VP Gary Schultz and president Graham Spanier, failed to tell police about the alleged rape of a 10-year-old boy by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in the school's showers? If he and his colleagues had been paying attention, they would have learned, as so many other powerful men have, that covering up or ignoring credible allegations of sexual abuse is not just morally wrong and extraordinarily harmful to children. It also almost never works.

From 2001 to 2004, I was the lead trial lawyer in more than 230 cases involving sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests in Boston. My colleagues and I were able to obtain thousands of internal church documents showing that the revered Cardinal Bernard Law not only declined to report dozens of pedophile priests, but he gave them new assignments where they could continue to prey on children. This secret material, reluctantly released by the church after numerous court orders throughout 2002, showed that even one of the most powerful Catholics in America could not cover up decades of child abuse forever.

So why did Paterno and his colleagues think, that same year, that they could ignore Sandusky's alleged offenses? It's the same mind-set that so many bishops, cardinals, Boy Scout leaders and other enablers of child sexual abuse have: Their loyalty is to the perpetrator they have known for years and not to the children who are the victims. You can't overstate the tragedy in this: When the powerful fail to do what's necessary to stop the predators in their midst, the abuse continues and the powerless suffer.

After Paterno's graduate assistant came to him with his eyewitness account of Sandusky's abuse, the coach must have realized that if the accusation was correct, there could be other victims to come. So when he failed to follow up and make sure that a report to law enforcement and child protection services was filed, he was putting multiple preadolescent boys at risk of being abused. Such boys, experts agree, often become men who lead lives filled with drug and alcohol abuse, failed relationships, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, self-hatred and suicide. If this fate befalls any of Sandusky's alleged victims, that's on Paterno's head too.

For Penn State and its fired coach, there is a way to at least mitigate their profound failings. First, stop making offensive comments. Paterno sounded like some of the Catholic bishops I sued when he said that we should "say a prayer" for the victims. The victims don't need his prayers right now; they needed his help when they were being preyed upon. Second, fess up. I can state with near certainty that other damaging facts will emerge. It's better for Paterno and Penn State to divulge everything they know, and now. Do not follow the sad path of Roman Catholic archdioceses around the country by going into obfuscation mode. Transparency may not only help Paterno and the rest clear their consciences, but it may also keep multiple-victim lawsuits against them at bay (you'd better believe the trial lawyers are circling). Third, Penn State, with Paterno's encouragement and financial support, should set up a hotline staffed by clinicians who will be available to answer calls from all the victims. The school should also offer them free mental-health treatment.

These are not easy steps. But for a man who prides himself as a person of high moral standing, not to mention a good Catholic, Paterno has to realize that protecting his reputation is of minor consequence compared with repairing the damage he has done.

Roderick MacLeish, a mediator with the Massachusetts firm MacLeish & Woolverton, secured more than $85 million for victims in hundreds of sex-abuse cases in Boston's archdiocese.