The Nittany Nightmare
“It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
“Although [the Vice President] oversaw the University police as part of his position he never reported the 2002 incident to the police never sought or reviewed a police report on the 1998 incident and never attempted to learn the identity of the child. No one did.”
Report, 33rd Statewide Grand Jury
Just one week ago I used this space to note a BBC report on the epidemic of child abuse in America which stressed the fact that only vigilance and reporting by the public can help stop the cycle of violence against children. Our child protection services caseworkers and police investigators do a spectacular job of investigating abuse after it has occurred but we perpetuate that abuse if we see the signs of it and fail to report it.
A truly ghastly example appeared that same day. The scandal currently surrounding Penn State University, its football program and legendary head coach Joe Paterno could easily have been avoided. Indeed, if the Grand Jury indictment in the case is to be believed, dozens, perhaps many dozens, of victims could have been spared abuse if employees at Penn State had taken advantage of numerous opportunities to turn in the alleged perpetrator, former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
At the time of the issuance of the indictment there were eight known victims. According to a report from a Philadelphia television station that number had grown to 29 by the time of my writing this on Wednesday evening. The number of those victims that were assaulted after Penn State employees first observed the abuse in the 1990s is not known.
A brief review of the Grand Jury findings shows the incredible missed opportunities and the depth of the abuse that is alleged to have occurred. Most of the media attention has rightfully been around the report that current assistant coach Mike McQueary made to Paterno in 2002 and the failure of McQueary, Paterno or Paterno’s superiors at Penn State to even so much as make a report to law enforcement about the rape of a ten year-old boy that occurred in the football locker room showers. That was not, however, the first time that Penn State employees saw Sandusky assaulting a child.
The earliest opportunity for intervention occurred in 1998, when Sandusky was still a coach at Penn St. The mother of one of his victims reported her suspicions to law enforcement. No sexual intercourse had occurred in that incident (Sandusky had rubbed up against the child in the Penn State showers) and the Grand Jury reported that the investigation closed at the direction of the Chief of the campus police force.
In 2000, after Sandusky had retired, a Penn State janitor observed him performing oral sex on a young boy. The janitor reported what he saw to other janitorial staff and to his immediate supervisor. No report was made to law enforcement. In 2008 Sandusky was seen inappropriately rolling around with a young boy in the boy’s high school gym. The coach who saw the activity reported it to his supervisor and Sandusky was banned from the school but no report was made to law enforcement.
Most shocking, of course, is the 2002 observation of Sandusky in the act of raping a ten year-old boy. The Grand Jury chose to believe coach McQueary that he reported to his superiors, in detail, what he observed. After he told Paterno and Paterno told other officials at the university, ten days passed before officials even met with McQueary. According to McQueary he was explicit in reporting what he observed.
The failure of university officials to report McQueary’s observations to law enforcement or to child protective services is a criminal offense in Pennsylvania because, like Ohio, Pennsylvania classifies certain categories of persons as “mandatory reporters” who are required to report suspected abuse. No charges have been filed for the failure to report because the statute of limitations on that offense is five years under Pennsylvania law. University officials have been charged with perjury, an allegation that they lied to the grand jurors about McQueary’s report to them. Paterno’s statements to the Grand Jury also appear to be contrary to that of McQueary though Paterno has not been charged. There is little doubt that the university will be sued by the victims or families of the victims, particularly those who were victimized after Sandusky was caught in the locker room.
To categorize this as simply a legal issue is to ignore the massive failure of moral responsibility that occurred here. Only one of the eight victims in the indictment was victimized after the 2002 incident but even if there weren’t more victims after that date, the fact that that one incident could have been prevented is sufficient to demonstrate the depth of that failure. When I began writing this column on Wednesday evening, Paterno was still the head football coach at Penn State. By the time I finished it, he and the university president had been dismissed, paying the ultimate professional price for allowing a predator to walk the halls of their facility unchecked for decades. Suspected abuse should immediately be reported to local law enforcement or to the Delaware County Department of Job and Family Services.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.