Joe Paterno must leave now: a religious argument

November 9, 2011

It is not enough for Joe Paterno to retire at the end of the season.  Joe Paterno should not be allowed to coach another day at Penn State University.  Penn State should remove his name from the honorable places where his name appears on the campus, like for instance on the Paterno Library.  He is certainly morally responsible for the children who prosecutors say were victimized by his long-time assistant, Jerry Sandusky.

Jerry Sandusky, even after he retired as an assistant coach at Penn State, was closely associated with Joe Paterno and maintained an office on Penn State property.  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 ten years old in the Penn State showers and that he reported this incident to Paterno.   

Prosecutors are now accusing Sandusky of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period. If the charges are true — Sandusky has denied them — 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 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.

And Paterno certainly could have made a difference here and, if what prosecutors say is true, his inaction 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 so his friendship and apparent trust of Sandusky softened up people into believing that Sandusky was legit.  So Paterno may not only have 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. 

The great paradigm of evil in the Bible is the city of Sodom.  It is noteworthy that the Bible does not explicitly state what the sin of Sodom was exactly. 

The Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin, 109b) suggests that their sin was a seemingly innocuous one.  Says the Talmud: “If there was a person who spread out garlic and onions in the sun to dry, each and every one of the Sodomites would come by and take one garlic or onion bulb.  And when the owner protested, each thief would say, ‘it was only one that I took.’”

The Talmud is teaching that the Sodomites were the epitome of evil because they used the legal system to evade personal responsibility and that the upshot of their collective actions was that innocent people were terribly hurt.   Each person in Sodom just stole a little bit, but in the end there was a huge loss.

The actions of Paterno and his apparently quiet accomplices at Penn State are analogous to the Talmudic interpretation of the actions of the Sodomites.

While prosecutors say Sandusky was the one who did the horrible assault, Paterno and others are also responsible for Sandusky’s alleged 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 did not feel responsible and thus the assaults continued.

“Victim 1” in the indictment testified that a wrestling coach named Joe Miller came in and saw Sandusky “wrestling” with him in an inappropriate position.  Miller himself said he saw Sandusky and Victim 1 “lying on their sides, in physical contact, face to face on a mat” (page 4 of indictment). 

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.

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

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

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

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