“The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.”
So reads the first line in the “Findings” section of former FBI director and federal judge Louis Freeh’s damning report on the Penn State child abuse scandal.
The report is in indictment of all involved, from the janitors to Joe Paterno.
Penn State’s leaders, the report concludes, “exhibited a striking lack of empathy” for the children involved. And, that the most “powerful people at the university repeatedly concealed critical facts” for fear of bad publicity.
Child advocates responded with outrage and calls for widespread systematic and cultural changes.
The director of training for the abuse prevention group Break the Cycle said the report makes clear that officials at every level need better training in how to handle suspected abuse. The president of the Ms. Foundation, which works on abuse issues, said the report should be a wake-up call for other universities to bolster their own policies.
But the report speaks to a problem more pervasive. Effective training and policies to prevent abuse are certainly necessary, but the new revelations make clear that from the decision makers on down, self-interest trumped all.
Many of those interviewed knew of or had deep suspicions that former coach Jerry Sandusky was abusing young boys and they chose to ignore it to protect their own livelihoods and reputations.
Can that level of disregard for kids be stamped out though training?
The school’s leaders, including former Penn State president Graham Spanier and Paterno, according to the report, were aware of suspicions about Sandusky’s “sexual improprieties” as one put it in an e-mail in 1998, and what was the response?
To conduct an investigation, to report it to the Board of Trustees, to follow the most basic of procedures and let Human Resources know?
Nope, they instead allowed Sandusky to retire as a football hero, gave him a lump sum payment of $168,000 and gave him, as he requested, special access to young people.
Last month Sandusky was convicted of 45 charges of child sex abuse ng at the conclusion of a trial in which eight young men testified that Sandusky molested them when they were boys.
One later assault was witnessed by a janitor, an act of oral sex that so disturbed the witness he told a co-worker that he had “fought in the [Korean] War … seen people with their guts blown out, arms dismembered … I just witnessed something I’ll never forget.”
But he never reported it, and neither did another janitor who also suspected abuse, for fear of losing their jobs.
There’s more: When top officials later learned of the witness account of Sandusky’s sexual assault of a boy in the ocker room shower, they didn’t try to find the boy or his parents. They didn’t call the police. They didn’t even interview the witness.
They agreed to tell Sandusky that concerns had been raised and they were “uncomfortable” with what they’d heard. They also agreed to tell him he wasn’t allowed to bring “guests” to the gym anymore, as if he had violated a guest policy by raping a boy.
They e-mailed in agreement that this reaction was the “humane” response.
Policies were in place, checks and balances existed, but, according to Freeh’s findings, these were actively ignored or circumvented to protect livelihoods and reputations.
The irony, of course, is that jobs were lost because of the cover-up and, as Michele Booth Cole, the director of the D.C.-based child advocacy group Safe Shores pointed out to me after she read the report, “The abuse itself was horrific, but the calculated and duplicitous efforts to ignore, diminish and sweep the abuse under the rug has left an indelible stain on the university’s reputation.”
For those who believe that Freeh’s report is unfair to the now deceased legendary football coach, there’s a particular chilling detail about Paterno’s response.
In 2001, then- graduate assistant Michael McQuery contacted Paterno on a Saturday morning to report that he had witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in a locker room shower.
Paterno, promised to tell the appropriate “people.” He then waited at least a full day to pick up the phone and pass on the report to colleagues. Why did he wait?
Paterno told a grand jury that ordinarily he would have called immediately, but since it was a Saturday morning, he did not “want to interfere with their weekends.”
If that doesn’t say pretty much everything about Paterno and Penn State’s priorities, the full report has plenty more.
Kids are protected not when the adults around them are following procedures, but when the adults around them care.
“I can only hope that our country will not just look at these finding as lessons for Penn State but for us all in our moral obligation to care for one another, particularly the most vulnerable among us,” Cole said.
Of all the questions that Freeh’s report has answered, one is left dangling: How can we use these findings? How can we change mindsets in every daycare and school and athletic program and church and legislature and home so that self-interest comes second to child protection?