Joe Paterno had to go: a religious argument

November 10, 2011

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s essay from Wednesday, following the Penn State Board of Trustees’ decision to fire Joe Paterno as head football coach.

The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's faith leader network. 

Penn State University bears some responsibility for what are alleged to be criminal attacks by Jerry Sandusky, but it finally acted appropriately when it fired Joe Paterno.  Now, university officials should go further and remove his name from the honorable places where his name appears on the campus, like for instance, on the Paterno Library.  Although, there is still more investigating to be done, we know enough to know that Paterno did not respond appropriately –and is still not responding appropriately—to the horrible charges that are being leveled against his long time assistant, Jerry Sandusky.

According to the grand jury indictment, a graduate assistant told Joe Paterno that he saw what appeared to be an anal sexual assault by Sandusky on a boy he estimated to be 10 years old in the Penn State showers and that he then reported this incident to Paterno.  

Prosecutors are now accusing Sandusky of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period.  Paterno could certainly have made a difference by getting personally involved in the situation.  Rather than choosing to get actively involved and protect innocent children, Paterno punted.  

He referred the matter his Athletic Director Tim Curley, and to our knowledge that was the end of his own personal involvement in the matter.

In the Jewish tradition it is an absolute sin to stand by while another person is being hurt.  The Torah states, “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16).  The great medieval commentator, Rashi (d. 1105), explains that this means: “To see his death while you were capable of saving him, like, for example, if he was drowning in the sea or bandits were coming upon him.”

According to American law, a person may or may not be held criminally responsible for failing to act when he could have made a difference.  But by Jewish law, failure to act when you could have made a difference is a direct biblical prohibition.

Paterno certainly could have made a difference here and his inaction may have led to more boys being assaulted.

But it is even worse than that.  Sandusky’s association with Paterno gave him an imprimatur of purity.  Paterno is a legendary figure at Penn State and his friendship and apparent trust of Sandusky softened up people into believing that Sandusky was legit.  So Paterno not only allowed the actions to occur through his passive act of being a bystander, but he also implicitly encouraged the alleged actions through his association with Sandusky.

While Sandusky is accused of the horrible assault, Paterno and others are also responsible for Sandusky’s actions.

According to the indictment there were multiple warning signs (of different degrees) that should have caused people to get involved and prevent future assaults.  But each person, like Joe Paterno, did not feel responsible and thus, prosecutors say, the assaults continued.

Even now Paterno still doesn’t get it.  He released a statement saying: "While I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention, like anyone else involved, I can't help but be deeply saddened these matters are alleged to have occurred.”

No, Coach Paterno.  You did not do what you were “supposed to do.”  What you did do was hide behind your legal duties as a way of evading your moral responsibilities and in effect you allowed this horrible activity to continue.

When he met with his players on Wednesday, his quarterback, Stephen Morris, said the main message was, “beat Nebraska.”  Beat Nebraska???  If that is the message he got across to his players, then he still doesn’t get it.    
The main message to his players should have been: “Don’t make the same mistake I made.  I might have been able to protect little boys from being raped and instead I fumbled my opportunity and have therefore forever changed my own legacy and reputation, and even worse, I now feel responsible for the pain of the victims.  So my message to you is that if you are ever concerned about a threat of this magnitude, assume personal responsibility for the welfare of the innocent.”

Shmuel Herzfeld is a rabbi at Ohev Sholom in Washington, DC.

For more essays by area faith leaders visit On Faith/Local.

Related: Penn State, my final loss of faith

Related: Rabbi Brad Hirschfield  discussed the ethics surrounding decisions made during the Penn State sex abuse scandal.

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