Penn State scandal: Is Joe Paterno's resignation enough?

Nov 09, 2011

Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins was online on Wednesday, Nov. 9 to discuss the Penn State scandal and her column, "Blame for the Penn State scandal does not lie with Joe Paterno."

Paterno has announced that he will step down at the end of Penn State's season.

Here's what you said in your column: "Spanier, Schultz and Curley couldnâ't necessarily recognize whether he was indeed a molester or falsely accused. But they were obliged to at least be alert to the basic patterns and conditions that led to trouble. Instead they ignored them." Why isn't Paterno included in this group?

Paterno is certainly included in the group, but the point of the column is that, as ex-FBI agent Ken Lanning points out, our personal judgments frequntly fail when it comes to acquainstance molesters. People close to them have a hard time believing they could be capable of this grotesque crime, despite good evidence. So it's all the more critical that Penn State was obliged to have the right protocols in place to protect kids. When an individual fails, you hope the system provides backup. And it apparently didn't. Apparently there was no system at all.

Do you believe that Joe Paterno should be allowed to finish the season?

At the moment, I believe the right thing happened: we have Paterno's resignation. Thus far the grand jury has refused to indict him and prosecutors have said they aren't pursuing charges. But if evidence emerges that he particpated in a coverup in any shape or form -- as opposed to simply not being able to bring himself to believe such a charge against an old friend -- then he should not only be fired immediately but charged.

How is it possible that Joe Paterno had no knowledge of the 1998 investigation?

That is a very good question. I don't know -- and if evidence emerges that he did know, that means he was twice told that his closest associate was molesting kids, and that would sugest that he was indeed more interested in a coverup than in the safety of children.

If the point of your column is about Lanning's observations, why the provocative and misleading headline?

Our headline writers do a great job. In this case the headline went farther than the column, but there have been hundreds of others that were much better than the column deserved.

As an intelligent person, and a good writer, how on earth can you write "Blame for the Penn State scandal does not lie with Joe Paterno". Perhaps "Not all of the blame..." "Others more to blame than Paterno...."

Um, did you read the column? I believe I employed the words you suggest. What I wrote was, it's wrong to lay the "chief" blame on Paterno, because he was too close to Sandusky. According to former FBI agent Ken Lanning, it's very difficult for people close to molesters to accept the accusations, because you think you know these people, whereas you see molesters as deviant strangers.  Lanning's point is that we need to get better insight into how molesters are able to seduce adults as well as children into trusting them. And also, he suggests that institutions and organizations have a responsibility to understand that human judgments fail when it comes to acquaintance molesters, and that's why higher up Penn State administrators are more culpable than Paterno. Paterno shares blame for his personal inaction, but the university president is far more to blame for the failure of the entire system when it came to these kids. 

But Sally, wasn't he told an extremely graphic story by one of his grad assistants about what was going on? He owed it to the child that was assaulted to at the VERY least confront his friend. And did he ever even ask about the child, how he was doing? It's unfathomable that a coach who is supposed to mold young men would have zero disregard for these children.

The most disheartening part of all of this is that many people in this case, not just Paterno, were allegedly told graphic stories and yet either wouldn't or couldn't believe it, and seemed paralyzed when it came to acting on it. What paralyzed their judgment? That's what I'm trying to shed some light on. According to former FBI profiler Ken Lanning, it happens far more often than you'd like to hear. There is another case in the paper almost every week of a trusted even beloved coach or youth counselor molesting kids. Their wives ignore evidence, their friends ignore evidence, and in some cases so did parents of children and even police. No one wants to admit that these molesters can be very appealing and persuasive, even princely seeming. And no one wants to admit that accounts of molestation can be very conflicting or muddy and that molester's are very adroit at rationalizing and explaining them away.

I agree that Paterno is a poor judge because of his close association with Sandusky. But his failure to follow-up after the more responsible university leadership did not turn this knowledge over to the proper authorities (i.e. a law enforcement agency) is a huge leadership failure on his part, especially in light that Sandusky was working closely with children through a charity and a football camp (all activities on PSU campus). Shouldn't this cost him his job? Like, right now.

Agreed that his lack of follow up should result in his resignation, and it apparently has, voluntarily. The right thing happened. I'm not so sure he should be forced to step down now. I think his failures were human and understandable, from what I've heard thus far: he put his head in the sand because the matter involved a close associate and he couldn't bring himself to admit he made such an error in judging character. Look, think of your best friend, the best person you know. Ask yourself if you could bring yourself to believe he raped a child, and call the cops. Sandusky was regarded as an absolute prince in the community. Now, that said, if evidence turns up that Paterno BELIEVED Sandusky was a molester and did nothing, he should be fired. And if he  participated in a coverup he should be criminally charged.

Re: I agree with you that it could be difficult to believe a friend could be capable of this, but I don't think you can equate this with an unknowing wife. In this case it's not just suspicions, it's TWO people who actually witnessed the behavior first hand. This is not a wife wondering why her husband may spend time alone with a child, it's people actively witnessing the abuse.

Well, the whole question is what Paterno was actualy told. My understanding is that he claims ignorance of the alleged first instance, and says that he was not told the graphic details of the alleged second instance. The grand jury apparently accepted his testimony as truthful, as did the police. If we learn differrent, charges should be pursued. But so far it looks like he simply couldn't accept that Mike McQeary really witnessed a child rape.

If Coach Paterno could not bring himself to believe that Sandusky molested that child, after hearing an eyewitness account from one of his graduate assistants, then he clearly thought that the assistant was either lying or delusional. Yet, McQueary has risen through the ranks to become wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. How do you square those facts?

That's a great question. We really don't know how to square that, do we? One potential explanation is a coverup. Another potential explanation is that Paterno wrote the whole thing off as an unfortunate misreading of what McQueary saw, and didn't want to pursue it because the subject was so unpleasant.I'd like to believe the latter and not the former. We don't know what Paterno asked or didn't ask Sandusky, or how Sandusky may ave explained the situation. He still maintains his innocence. Look, Paterno had a conflict of interest in about eight different ways, which is why I place more responsibility on the people above him. By the way, I also have trouble understanding why McQueary didnt intervene on the spot -- why didn't he throw a roundhouse at Sandusky and get that child out of there? 

You wrote, in answer to another question, "if evidence emerges that he did know, that means he was twice told that his closest associate was molesting kids" He was told twice. Why didn't something happen after the first time? Apparently, a lot did happen, except for the part about telling police. Is it just a coincidence that Sandusky was gone in 1999, after the 1998 incident? People knew, a lot of people knew, and Paterno is included in that group. He can't be excused.

I don't know that it's legally clear he was told twice. The grand jury didn't seem to think so. But thanks for the comment.

But do we know the grad assistant got into gory details with JoePa? The assistant was 28 yrs old, I can imagine he would not go into graphic descriptions with the 75yr old head coach. I'm sorry Paterno didn't follow up. And I'm very sorry that this is such a sad end to a career that not only produced winning teams but good young men.

This seems to be an important question for people when it comes to judging Paterno's conduct. But I'd remind people of former FBI agent Lanning's key point: it happens all the time that normally intelligent people fail to accept evidence of molestation by a friend or associate. There are cases like this all the time. Crying for Paterno's blood doesn't give us insight into why -- why are molesters so effective at hidng in plain sight, and winning our trust. Why do kids go back to them repeatedly, and even seem to like or love them? Don't forget, Sandusky was beloved by his players, and apparently by some children. Beloved.

One of the things that is so weird to me is how quickly this story became a Paterno story, and not a Sandusky story. Are people too naive about the role that a 90-year old 'head' coach actually has in big-time college football? I find it hard to believe that Paterno is much more than a figurehead in Penn State's football machine, so isn't he being scapegoated? That said, I'm still mad at him for not scheduling Pitt on a yearly basis!

That's perhaps not such a bad take. (Paterno is 84.) But his critics would point out that the university president seemed incapable of ousting him a few years ago, and that Paterno still weilded real power. I think if Paterno really believed Sandusky was a child molester and he picked up the phone and called his friends with the local police force, half the force wuld have responded. The question is what paralyzed him.

Wasn't Mr. Paterno the 'Supervisor' for the grad assistant? Doesn't he have a responsibility and an obligation to inform the Police? How can a 28 year old (Grad assistant) walk away and leave a helpless child from getting raped? Mr. Paterno should get a large share of the blame since he reports to nobody at PSU (from what I know)!

According to the police investigators, Paterno fufilled his legal duty and obligation when he informed his superiors. He apparently wasnt legally obliged to personally inform the police. Whether he fufilled his moral duty is another question, and I'm more interested in figuring out why, than in blaming him, because it happens a lot. He's not the first or the last who had trouble acting on an issue like this. Look at Little League cases, USA swimming, etc.

You deem Joe's actions "understandable", and that we should empathize with his dilemma by asking ourselves to "think of your best friend" before we judge. Hypotheticals are of no value here. Real people are involved on the back end of this "error in judging character" Sally. Children whose innocence and sense of security have been taken forever. And families whose lives have been torn apart, never to become whole again. Is it really ever "understandable" to walk away from that?

Ken Lanning's point is that this is an almost incomprehensible crime -- there is almost no understanding it. Which is what makes it so hard to believe a good acquaintance or friend is guilty of it. In order to say Paterno "walked away" from his responsibility, you presume he believed Sandusky was capable of the crime. I'm not suggesting we empathize with Paterno. Merely that we try to gain some insight into why child molesters are so successful at surviving in the work place and on the Little League field right in front of us for years at a time. Acquaintance molesters can go decades victimizing kids, even when there are rumors about them, and I'd just like to understand why. We need better profiles of them and we need a better profile of ourselves in dealing with them. You think you would behave differently from Paterno. Maybe you would. Or maybe you would be fooled too and ignore good evidence. Other smart people certainly have.

You quote the FBI agent, "it happens all the time that normally intelligent people fail to accept evidence of molestation by a friend or associate. There are cases like this all the time." Failing to accept evidence does not absolve you of responsibility. The fact that it happens all the time does not absolve you of responsibility.

As I said in the column, Paterno certainly bears some responsibility. I'm not giving him a pass. However I think those above him bore even greater responsibility.

Joe Pa clearly didn't do enough. Nice try at defending him. He had eyewitness evidence that Sandusky had raped a ten-year-old on school property. At that point he didn't need a child molestation expert to identify Sandusky as a criminal child molester. He knew what he was dealing with and needed to call the police. Instead, of doing all that he could do to protect past, present and future victims of Sandusky, Joe Pa chose to defend his football program. For that Joe Pa should be fired immediately. There is no excuse that you or anyone else can come up with for him ignoring his obligations to protect children in the community. I do admire you for taking questions on this. But I will admire you even more when you retract this nonsense and publish an apology.

That's certainly how many people feel. Thanks for writing in. Look, I don't absolve Paterno of blame, or excuse him. I'm merely suggesting we try to better understand what happened, where the failures were. Baying for Paterno's blood doesn't give us much insight. If it's just a coverup, plain and simple, and Paterno chose his program over the victims, he should be charged with a crime. But I think it was more complicated than that. At least the grand jury thought so.

Yes, there is much blame to go around for this scandal. But the main point of this is that anyone who received information about potential abuses and did not report the potential abuse to law enforcement authorities should lose his job. This includes Joe Paterno. He should not be allowed to coach the rest of the season. Sorry, Joe, your past success as a coach and your greatness as a leader of men has been tarnished by your sin of omission here.

No question Paterno is tarnished by this. But the other matter, boy, that's a tough one. There are a lot of people who have "information" that suggests a beloved figure might be a molester, and they do nothing with it. Wives. Even parents of children. Ken Lanning points out that scores of children return to the company of molesters very compliantly, Why? Because acquaintance molesters are very appealing, very charismatic, very persuasive and seductive people, and they make it very hard to believe they could ever harm a child, even when there is evidence.

Considering the breadth of allegations, the possibility that Sandusky was on campus as recently as LAST WEEK, how implicit members of the athletic department were in the scandal and the degree of ignorance involved... how can someone say that the Death Penalty should not be on the table for Penn State's football program? This isn't a recruiting scandal or tattoo's or college debauchery. This is a black mark for the program, and for the NCAA as a whole.

Well look. The people at Penn State aren't completely evil  -- I don't think. What they do seem to be is incurably arrogant and holier than thou, and incompetent. Why do you let an accused child molester keep an office on your campus? My guess is they simply didn't believe the accusations were serious or would ever come to anything. Otherwise its hard to explain.

I totally agree with you that Joe Paterno was unfairly targeted in this terrible scandal. I don't know how this got turned away from the truly guilty party (Sandusky), but we really need to refocus here. If anyone is guilty of sweeping this terrible set of events under the rug, it's Curley, Schultz, and without question Graham Spanier. (Why he's not under more scrutiny truly surprises me.) Regarding what more Joe could have done, we can mighta-coulda-shoulda ourselves till we're blue in the face, but the fact is that he did follow university protocol and chain of command in reporting Sandusky. And knowing his reputation for integrity, he would have felt duty-bound to obey the chain of command. And who knows--perhaps he did go to the local police, but got undercut by the university. There's quite a lot I'm sure we don't know at this time. What happened to those boys at the hands of Sandusky (no pun intended) was beyond horrible, and the fact that my university (I'm a Penn State grad) covered this up breaks my heart, but let's keep in mind who the real guilty parties are, and not get swept up in the making-Goliath-fall mode. Justice must be issued, and issued in its own time. But I do believe that Joe Paterno deserved better. That's the opinion of this Penn State grad.

A lot of people on this chat disagree with you, but thanks for writing. I'm not sure I entirely agree either.  I think Paterno's behavior was very complicated, and not what it should have been. But he's far from the worst offender.

Sally, In hindsight do you wish that you had used a different title for your article?

I think Graham Spanier is the one who should resign immediately. He appears to have exercised zero oversight. He and his VP Gary Schultz have let the university in for years of  litigation, and I think they were plainly, horribly negligent, given that Schultz received not one but two allegations of Sandusky showering with small boys on campus.

You say that Paterno should be included in the group that should have been "obliged to at least be alert to the patterns and conditions the led to the trouble" Than why is it that you seem to be defending his right to remain coach?

I think the right thing happend in Paterno announcing he will step down, and I certainly don't absolve him of failing in his oversight as a unversity rep. I simply argue that he was too close to Sandusky and that the people above him failed more significantly.

Tell me where I am wrong: Paterno did not witness the crime The police knew about Sandusky in 1998 and brought no charges. The DA knew about this in 1998 and brought no charges. Sandusky was allowed to run a foundation for children until 2008 though people in the community knew that the alleged crimes had been committed. No state agency had intervened. Joe Paterno knew that the police knew and had done nothing. Joe Paterno knew that the police knew and had done nothing. Knowing that the police knew of the charges and the school knew about the charges but had done nothing, what, specifically was Paterno supposed to do? Specifically.

That's a legitimate point. Nevertheless, I do think Paterno should have asked more questions that he appears to have asked.

Like so many things, the developments regarding the Penn State program are coming out fast? What information has been divulged regarding the protocol? Did he fail to observe a Penn State or legal policy for reporting the hearsay allegations above the athletic director? Was he required to investigate independently?I hate extreme reactions without information.

These are pretty good questions. All I know is that the university doesn't seem to have had a protocol, or if they did, it utterly failed.

I'm glad you referenced Lanning -- I read an article on him in the Post recently and agree with his assessment wholeheartedly, and his examples of the Green River Killer, BTK, and the eeriness of Jeffrey Dahmer. You never know about people, until you really find out. However, in Sandusky's case, people knew, or at the very very least, people, a lot of people within the House of Penn State, including Joe, knew, or had a reasonable suspicion that Sandusky was a pedophile.

Well, after talking with Ken Lanning for about an hour yesterday, I can tell you that his experience is that people close to acquaintance-pedophiles have a hard time accepting the idea that they are capable of the crime. I'm not sure Paterno had a reasonable suspicion. It appears he was in total denial, and Lanning says that's not uncommon. I know of a case where the parents of a molested girl had the molester, her youth coach, living in their house because they thought he was such a good and truthworthy guy. I can't stress this enough: look at one of your close friends, and ask yourself if you could accept an accusation that they molested a child?

This apparently went on for years within the confined community of the Penn State football program and Sandusky on at least several occasions wasn't terribly discrete. I'm sure more will come out on this with time - wasn't there any kind of suspicion, gossip, etc.? I find it hard to believe Paterno was blindsided. Did Lanning have anything to say about this situation, when an abuser is active for so many years in a small community?

Lanning says it happens all the time and the molesters friends simply don't want to believe or accept it. "It's hard to admit you made such an error in judgment," he says. None of wants to believe we could befriend much less promote a child molester. Yet look at how many cases there are of the local Little League coach or youth counselor or soccer coach molesting kids.

Sally, please ask yourself how you would feel if it were a coach in whom you were not, at least somewhat, emotionally invested. Or, someone whom you disliked? Would you really be espousing that he be allowed to retire on his own terms?

I'm not the least invested in Joe Paterno. I interviewed him once, about twenty years ago. Haven't seen him since. And my personal opinion is that he overstayed as coach. 

It seems to me that your take on the men who failed to act to help protect Yeardly Love is miles apart from your take on Paterno and other grown men who had knowledge of the 1998 abuse and the 2002 rape. It seems to me you held the younger Lacrosse team members to higher standards. Would you agree?

Nope. Some of Hugely's teammates were literal eyewitnesses to his violence, against Yeardley Love, and others. They saw him punch out a teammate while he was sleeping, and be tasered by a female cop, and told no one. If we can accept Paterno's grand testimony, he was told second hand that Sandusky had sex with a boy in the the Penn State shower, and he promptly reported this to his superior. Should he have gone farther? Yes? But did he keep silent? No.

Why do you believe Paterno's failure to contact the authorites was "human and understandable"? People turn in their molesters and abusers all the time, you act as if it is unheard of. Don't you agree that Paterno and PSU have always claimed a certain moral authority, and should be judged against such?

Well, look. It's human and understandable if Paterno couldn't bring himself to believe a good friend and colleague was a child molester. What wouldn't be understandable was if he believed Sandusky was guilty, and refused to act. As for your second question, I indeed agree that Paterno and Penn State have claimed a moral authority, against which they should be judged. Absolutely....Okay folks, I've got to go. Sorry I didn't get to all of your questions. I urge you to read Ken Lanning's work, which you can easily find online. It's pretty important.

In This Chat
Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for The Washington Post, rejoined the newspaper as a full-time columnist in summer 2000. She previously worked for the newspaper from 1983 to1989. Before rejoining The Post, Jenkins was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. Jenkins is the author of "The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation" and and co-author of "The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy" (co-written with historian John Stauffer), "It's Not About the Bike" (co-written with cyclist Lance Armstrong); "Reach for the Summit" and "Raise the Roof" (both co-written with women's basketball coach Pat Summit); and "A Coach's Life" (co-written with college basketball coach Dean Smith). Jenkins is a graduate of Stanford University. She is a native of Fort Worth, Texas and lives in New York City.
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