Crime and Punishment at Penn State

Author’s Note: The crimes described below are stated frankly. Those who do not wish to read details about sexual assaults are cautioned.

Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is Roman Catholic and a regular churchgoer, not a nominal believer. Surely, he paid attention to the scandals that have roiled the Church in recent years. And you might suppose he learned something about how to respond to allegations about the sexual assault of children. But apparently not.

The lesson: sexual predators cease their criminal abuse only when caught, tried, convicted, and imprisoned. This is the single understanding to be applied in all places at all times and, by definition, in every profession. And against every pedophile.

Encomia for Mr. Paterno have filled airways, print media, and the Internet over the last few days. When it was announced that he had been fired, Penn State students took to the streets to demonstrate their affection for him and vent their outrage at the university’s decision to dismiss him in the wake of the child-rape scandal involving his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. The demonstration descended into violence. Students were filmed grinning, laughing, and cheering as a satellite television truck was overturned. To his credit, Coach Paterno spoke to students who gathered outside his home and urged them to stay calm and return to their dorms – and study.

But let’s review the pattern of criminality that occurred at PSU. Jerry Sandusky began coaching with Mr. Paterno in 1969. Eight years later, Sandusky founded a charity, Second Mile, dedicated to helping children from dysfunctional families. A grand jury has determined that Sandusky serially abused boys who came to Second Mile – there are no allegations involving girls – which has now led to “40 criminal counts, accusing him of serial sex abuse of minors.” Nota bene: Under Pennsylvania law, “a defendant is strictly liable for the offense of rape, a felony of the first degree, when the complainant is 12 or younger.”

The questions upon which Coach Paterno’s fate (and that of various others at Penn State) has rested are familiar: What and when did he learn about Sandusky’s crimes?

In 1998, the mother of an 11-year-old called police to say her son had returned with wet hair from a Second Mile outing. The mother had a conversation with Sandusky that was monitored by police. ESPN quotes from one officer’s deposition:

Sandusky says he has showered with other boys and [the victim’s] mother tries to make Sandusky promise never to shower with a boy again but he will not. At the end of [a] second conversation, after Sandusky is told he cannot see [the victim] anymore . . . Sandusky says, “I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead.”

No charges were brought.

Jerry Sandusky last week: finally in custody

Although Sandusky retired from coaching in 1999, he continued to have access to the university’s athletic facilities. In 2000, a janitor saw him in a shower at the Lasch Football Building fellating a pre-teen boy. The janitor reported the incident to his superiors, but no official complaint was lodged.

Then in 2002 – and this is the incident in the news this week – then graduate-assistant coach, Mike McQueary, saw Sandusky in the same shower area having anal intercourse with a 10-year-old, which is to say: Sandusky was raping the child. McQueary did not attempt to intervene or call the police. Instead, he called his father, who advised him to say nothing to anybody. But the next morning father and son visited Coach Paterno, and Mike McQueary described to him – in detail – what he’d seen.

Paterno chose to call PSU’s athletic director.

Several weeks later, McQueary was interviewed by the athletic director and another PSU official (both of whom have been fired by PSU and indicted), and they did report the matter – not to the police but to Second Mile. However, PSU forced Sandusky to surrender his locker-room keys.

Sandusky retired from Second Mile in 2010 – eight years after the crime McQueary witnessed. Much additional criminal activity by Sandusky happened during this period. A new police investigation began in 2009, and a grand jury was convened in March of this year. Sandusky was arrested on November 5.

Joe Paterno won more football games than any other college coach. He rarely if ever endured the kind of recruiting or other scandals that, for instance, recently forced the resignation of Ohio State’s Jim Tressel. Tressel fell victim to his own reluctance to report niggling violations of NCAA rules governing “payments” to players (in this case: trading memorabilia for tattoos). The Miami Hurricane football program has been so miscreant that an old joke says the team picture has to be taken twice – once from the front and then from the side. Meanwhile (as ESPN reports), “Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly says Paterno is not a target of the investigation into how [PSU] handled the accusations.”

What did he know and when did he know it?

He knew enough, and he knew it at least a decade ago. He knew an innocent boy had been viciously raped. (Can we, please, stop referring to Sandusky’s crimes as sexual abuse?) Moreover, Paterno is a man who understands the importance of good character, and often speaks about it, which is why he deserved to be fired. He may be guilty of withholding evidence (if, for instance, he knew of the 2000 shower assault). But for now that is pure speculation, although he has hired an attorney. Mr. McQueary is in protective custody because of threats on his life

My father joined Ohio State’s Faculty Council several years after it had refused to allow the Buckeyes – then ranked #1 – to play in the 1962 Rose Bowl. This may have been the last time any American university asserted its core mission against the Big Sport juggernaut. Now they can’t. Football and basketball coaches make much more money and, therefore, command more power than most college presidents. Many believe they are a law unto themselves. The Program above all.

You’d hope that a Catholic coach would not fall afoul of this sickening replay of Original Sin, especially a real Catholic. But that was not the case at Penn State.


A follow-up to this column, Crime and Punishment at Penn State, Part II may be found here.

Note: A follow-up column, Crime and Punishment at Penn State, Part II, is now available.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.