There’s been an awful lot of misdirected anger expressed by Penn State students and fans the past few days, since legendary football coach Joe Paterno was fired in the wake of a sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach.

Students rioted in the streets and destroyed property, shouting “We want Joe back!'” and “One more game!” Television footage showed hundreds of fans gathered outside Paterno’s home, shouting “We want Joe.”

Paterno, 84, has been coach for so long, and successful for so long, that he is deeply loved by Penn State faithful, who affectionately refer to him as “Joe Pa.” It’s not surprising that fans would want to support him.

BUT — and it’s a big “but” — Paterno’s supporters seem surprisingly not bothered by the knowledge that the coach has known for nine years — since an eye-witness reported to him in 2002 — that a former assistant coach was using the draw of Penn State’s reputation and the football team’s locker room to abuse young boys he connected with through charity work. 

That’ despicable. It was despicable for former coach Jerry Sandusky to take sexual advantage of young boys (he’s charged with molesting eight boys over 15 years), and it was despicable for Paterno to let it go on without outing Sandusky. And, it’s nigh on to despicable for football fanatics to be more outraged by Paterno’s firing than by Sandusky’s criminal acts.

News reports say that when a graduate assistant reported observing the abuse, Paterno told him he didn’t want to know the details. He then reported the incident to the Athletic Director and apparently assumed he had fulfilled his obligations.

Now that the story has come out through other means, Paterno says he was “absolutely devastated” by the abuse case, which he called “a tragedy” and “one of the great sorrows of my life.”

“With the benefit of hindsight,” he said, “I wish I had done more.”

I’m sure he does — but I suspect his motivation has more to do with the recent hoopla than with the knowledge he’s been sitting on since 2002. How many children have been absolutely devastated by Sandusky’s actions, which Paterno could potentially have stopped? Whether the beloved coach had a legal obligation to do more, both he and the university officials who kept it quiet had a moral obligation to report Sandusky to the police or other child protective services.

Recognizing the evil inherent in the sexual molestation of children should require no hindsight or hard thinking. It should require no deep debates about whether to tell or not. We may indeed have compassion for predators and whatever demons drive them, but our first concern has to be for the children.

This should not be a difficult call. When children are being sexually abused, if you do know, do tell — tell as many people as it takes.


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