July 23, 2012

John M. White works in The Post’s Editorial Department.

The statue is gone, and the sanctions have been laid out. But what about the rest of it?

Pennsylvanians are still in shock over the sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State University. Even though most of us never met Joe Paterno, we loved and respected him as a father figure. We believed in the purity and goodness of “Joe” or “JoePa,” and in the rightness of Penn State. Assuming the report issued by former FBI director Louis Freeh condemning the school’s leadership is accurate and holds up through future criminal and civil trials, the truth is unfathomable: Our beloved football coach somehow allowed children to be raped. This has destroyed many of us — but, of course, this pales in comparison to the true victims. The children must be remembered before we can address our betrayal.

How do you come to terms with the fact that a family member allowed a colleague to do horrific things to children? That he betrayed you and your neighbors? Paterno wasn’t just a coach at a big-time college. We saw him as an example of how to live our lives.

Many say the fault lies with the glorification of college football. To a degree, that’s true, but it's not the only factor at Penn State. Yes, Paterno was the winningest NCAA Division I coach in history, before the sanctions announced Monday. But during the nearly 46 years of Paterno’s tenure, his teams won only two national championships. Over the years, especially after poor seasons, when it seemed Paterno had lost his ability to relate to the modern game, there were calls to replace him. If Penn State and the boosters had cared only about championships, he would have been gone long ago.

Paterno’s staying power was his perceived ethical and moral character.

He fostered the legend of a humble man who wanted what was best for his school and the people of central Pennsylvania. He lived in the same modest, rambler-style home his entire time in State College. He turned down offers to coach NFL teams. He walked the campus, rather than drive or be driven. He even walked the 11 / 2 miles home after most games, often heading through alleys on the edge of campus to avoid attention.

Paterno and his wife, Sue, donated millions to Penn State and to various local charities. They helped raise more than $13 million to expand the campus library, which bears their name. Even after he was fired last year, the Paternos announced a major donation to the Catholic Student Faith Center, already named for Sue Paterno. They said they would be donating parts of Paterno’s retirement package back to the school and to charity.

After the reports of atrocities by onetime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky started coming out last fall, political cartoonist Mike Keefe drew an editorial cartoon that still haunts me. The image, which appeared in The Post on Nov. 12, showed a naked boy curled up in the shower, all alone. It made me shed tears for the loneliness, the fear, the sense of feeling lost. That night as I drove home from work after I saw it, I yelled several times, trying to expel the frustration and energy building up in me. So heavy is the betrayal we Pennsylvanians feel.

We are trying to understand the stories that have emerged: that Paterno wasn’t so holy; that he fought back when he saw the football program being attacked, rightly or wrongly; that he expected respect and compliance. We now know that he asserted himself in more than university turf battles.

Those who stand with Penn State aren’t burying our heads in the sand or playing down the enormity of the crimes. This strikes at the heart of our family, and we need time to process it. How long would it take you to acknowledge, to yourself and others, that what you held dear in your heart was a mirage?

As the truth has emerged, much has been made of the students who rioted when Paterno was fired last year. Since the Freeh report was published, many have wondered what will come next. Removing the Paterno statue and accepting the NCAA’s sanctions doesn’t begin to undo all the harm that’s been done. The $60 million fine and other penalties assessed to the football program are a just punishment. However, the NCAA needs to direct that $60 million fine toward the children raped by Sandusky. The school needs to reach out to the victims and find out what they need and want, rather than forcing them to file lawsuits. Be proactive, give them a grievance hearing in front of the Board of Trustees, either in public or in private, and allow them to speak their piece. Whatever the known victims want — therapy, a true public apology, financial compensation, etc. without imposing confidentiality agreements — give it to them.

There is a hole in our hearts bigger than that statue or Beaver Stadium. Only time and true redemption, by caring for the victims, can help us heal.