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Holly Swanson: The Problem with Paterno-Blame

by on August 23, 2012 7:18 AM

This is not the column I wanted to write. I talked myself out of it several times, but kept coming back to it because it’s that important. I will likely gain no friends by writing it, but I'm going to say it anyway.

Joe Paterno is not the bad guy.

I’ve had this opinion since November, but then I read the Freeh report. Or, rather, I read the summary of the Freeh report. It horrified me.

I couldn't believe that Penn State leaders like Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz and Paterno deliberately created a cover-up to protect Jerry Sandusky. But the evidence was apparently there. The Freeh summary said Paterno even knew about the 1998 shower incident and followed the investigation closely, but took no action.

The full Freeh report is a time-consuming read at 267 pages. Since my kids demanded my attention, I had to wait several hours before I could go through the report in its entirety.

If you haven’t read my columns before, here’s my disclaimer: I didn’t go to Penn State. Before this season, I wasn’t a Penn State football fan. I thought Joe Paterno overstayed his usefulness as head coach years ago. I do not drink the Penn State Kool-Aid and am not disillusioned by Paterno’s reputation.

But, what I read in that report was a far cry from what was outlined in the summary and reported in the media early that morning.

The proof that Paterno and the others intentionally concealed Sandusky’s actions is a stretch, at best. The most damning evidence is a string of out-of-context emails. Unfortunately, the people who wrote these emails were never interviewed during the Freeh investigation, leaving it up to the reader to decide what they meant.

What I see evidenced in this report, along with the Grand Jury report, is a group of otherwise highly responsible, educated men who, like many others, did not recognize Sandusky for the monster he is. This is where the danger lies.

Besides the lack of evidence showing that the above-mentioned Penn State leaders actively allowed Sandusky to continue abusing children, there are a few other problems with the Paterno cover-up story.

1. If you are staging a cover-up, you don't want anyone else to know about it. Paterno could have told Mike McQueary to keep the shower incident quiet. Instead, he told Curley about it and got the ball rolling for an investigation, albeit a failed one.

2. Paterno didn’t like Sandusky. Despite the assumption that Paterno and Sandusky were buddies, evidence in the new biography "Paterno" by Joe Posnanski shows that Paterno couldn’t stand him. If he had understood what Sandusky was doing, Paterno would have been happy to turn him in. There was no reason for anyone to protect Sandusky, especially since he meant nothing to the football team in terms of public relations by 2001.

3. The Grand Jury report caught Paterno like a deer in headlights. If he and Spanier had worked together on a conspiracy, they would have been prepared to justify their inactions. They would have anxiously anticipated the report to see whether any blame was coming their way. But they were both, particularly Paterno, taken by surprise. Witnesses say that Paterno was so convinced that the Grand Jury report didn’t involve him, he had to be repeatedly prompted to read it. That doesn’t sound like the reaction from a man who, as some believe, deliberately and repeatedly turned his head while Sandusky continued raping young boys.

I admit it would be easier if there was solid evidence to prove a deliberate cover-up. It would be easier to understand that a child molester like Sandusky didn’t get away with this on his own. But child abusers are skilled at gaining trust in both their victims and their associates. The average pedophile, if there is such a thing, abuses more than one hundred children before they are caught. We only know of about a dozen Sandusky victims, but there are likely to be many more, perhaps going back decades.

Child abusers are masters of manipulation. Think about all the people who were fooled or misled by Sandusky. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of friends, family members, Second Mile staff members, police officers, Children and Youth Services, the Department of Public Welfare, the District Attorney’s office ... if you accuse Paterno of not doing enough with the little information he had, you have to implicate everyone else who could have known.

So why didn’t Paterno do more? Because he was likely unaware that anything was going on aside from Sandusky showering with a boy. Creepy? Definitely. Inappropriate? Absolutely. But even the police officers who investigated the 1998 incident couldn’t find anything illegal with which to charge Sandusky.

Anytime I make a pro-Paterno statement online or I question the Freeh report, someone always says, "What if that was your child?" Here's my answer: I would be absolutely heartbroken. I also would want to know how Sandusky got away with it for so long. We need to be educated about the signs that were missed by dozens of intelligent people.

Pointing the finger at Paterno is the easy thing to do because it helps us make sense of Sandusky’s depravity. It makes us think, “Of course he got away with it for so long. He had help.”

But blaming Paterno does not help the victims.

It only provides us with a reassuring, but false, sense that this will not happen again.

Sandusky is a horrible, but skilled manipulator. There are probably others like him right now walking among us. Focusing so much blame and anger at Paterno and the others is a distraction that takes focus away from protecting our children today and learning how to spot the people who, given the opportunity, would harm them.

If we spent as much time studying Sandusky’s personality, his grooming process, and the power he held over his victims as we do over debating Paterno’s culpability, we might actually find ways to prevent future instances of child abuse.

Free educational workshops aimed at increasing awareness of child abuse issues are being offered in Centre County by the Stewards of Children program.

Recent columns:

Holly Swanson is a State College-based freelance writer. She is on Twitter @statecollegemom and can be reached via email at [email protected]
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