July 12, 2012

ON THURSDAY — after seven months, 400 interviews and some 3.5 million documents — the results of the investigation into the Penn State sexual abuse scandal were finally released. The university’s board of trustees was right to launch this inquest, led by Louis Freeh, the former FBI director and now a private investigator. A full-scale, public inquiry into the Jerry Sandusky scandal was the necessary first step toward rebuilding a fractured community.

In a news conference Thursday, Mr. Freeh condemned the university’s leadership — including Joe Paterno, the school’s legendary head football coach who died in January — for failing to protect the innocent children Mr. Sandusky assaulted. “Our most saddening and sobering finding,” Mr. Freeh said, “is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”

It had become clear as the scandal unfolded that these men — Graham Spanier, Penn State’s former president; Gary Schultz, former vice president; Tim Curley, former athletic director; and Mr. Paterno — avoided taking aggressive action even when they received reports of Mr. Sandusky’s abuses. Mr. Schultz and Mr. Curley have been charged with perjury and failing to report what they knew. The Freeh investigation, however, sheds sickening light on the extent to which these men actively pursued a cover-up at the expense of Mr. Sandusky’s victims.

Among the most remarkable revelations in the report is the role that Mr. Paterno played in the scandal. Although e-mails leaked late in the investigation revealed that the coach was influential in the group’s decision not to report Mr. Sandusky after a 2001 incident, it appears that he also lied before a grand jury about whether he was aware of a 1998 incident involving Mr. Sandusky. As the investigation showed, Mr. Paterno was well aware of that incident and took no action, “even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s.”

Unfortunately, that is far from the investigation’s worst discovery. As if allowing an adult to continue sexually abusing children for more than a decade wasn’t bad enough, these officials somehow managed to put Mr. Sandusky’s victims at even greater risk. In 2001, for instance, after an assistant reported seeing Mr. Sandusky in the shower sexually assaulting a boy, the only person these men alerted was Mr. Sandusky himself, the only one who knew the boy’s identity. That Penn State’s administrators and coaches would actively engage in a cover-up is unconscionable, but their “striking lack of empathy” for the victims is horrifying.

In the end, the root of the problem seems to be what the report calls Penn State’s “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” This culture is ultimately what silenced janitors from reporting what they witnessed and university officials from fulfilling their obvious moral obligation to the children Mr. Sandusky attacked. The Freeh investigation should serve as a red flag for any similar environment in which the powerful are unquestioned and protected, all for the sake of a game.