Joe Paterno was a liar, there’s no doubt about that now. He was also a cover-up artist. If the Freeh report is correct in its summary of the Penn State child molestation scandal, the public Paterno of the last few years was a work of fiction. In his place is a hubristic, indictable hypocrite.
In the last interview before his death, Paterno insisted as strenuously as a dying man could that he had absolutely no knowledge of a 1998 police inquiry into child molestation accusations against his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. This has always been the critical point in assessing whether Paterno and other Penn State leaders enabled Sandusky’s crimes.
If Paterno knew about ’98, then he wasn’t some aging granddad who was deceived, but a canny and unfeeling power broker who put protecting his reputation ahead of protecting children.
If he knew about ’98, then he understood the import of graduate assistant Mike McQueary’s distraught account in 2001 that he witnessed Sandusky assaulting a boy in the Penn State showers.
If he knew about ’98, then he also perjured himself before a grand jury.
Paterno didn’t always give lucid answers in his final interview conducted with The Washington Post eight days before his death, but on this point he was categorical and clear as a bell. He pled total, lying ignorance of the ’98 investigation into a local mother’s claim Sandusky had groped her son in the shower at the football building. How could Paterno have no knowledge of this, I asked him?
“Nobody knew,” he said.
Never heard a rumor?
“I never heard a thing,” he said.
He heard everything.
“If Jerry’s guilty, nobody found out till after several incidents.”
Not a whisper? How is that possible?
Paterno’s account of himself is flatly contradicted in damning detail by ex FBI-director Louis Freeh’s report. In a news conference Thursday, Freeh charged that Paterno, along with athletic director Timothy Curley, university president Graham Spanier and vice president Gary Schultz, engaged in a cover-up, “an active agreement of concealment.”
Paterno was not only aware of the ’98 investigation but followed it “closely” according to Freeh. As did the entire leadership of Penn State. E-mails and confidential notes by Schultz about the progress of the inquiry prove it. “Behavior — at best inappropriate @ worst sexual improprieties,” Schultz wrote. “At min – Poor Judgment.” Schultz also wrote, “Is this opening of pandora’s box?” and “Other children?”
A May 5, 1998 e-mail from Curley to Schultz and Spanier was titled “Joe Paterno” and it says, “I have touched base with the coach. Keep us posted. Thanks.”
A second e-mail dated May 13 1998 from Curley to Schultz is titled “Jerry” and it says, “Anything new [in] this department? Coach is anxious to know where it stands.”
There is only one aspect in which the Freeh report does not totally destroy Paterno’s pretension of honesty. It finds no connection between the ’98 investigation and Sandusky’s resignation from Paterno’s staff in ’99. The report also suggests that Paterno genuinely believed the police had found no evidence of a crime.
Paterno can be forgiven for his initial denial, for refusing to believe his colleague was a child molester in ’98. What’s not forgivable is his sustained determination to lie from 2001 onward.
This is how Paterno testified in January 2011 before the grand jury. He was asked: “Other than the  incident that Mike McQueary reported to you, do you know in any way, through rumor, direct knowledge or any other fashion, of any other inappropriate sexual conduct by Jerry Sandusky with young boys?”
Paterno replied, “I do not know of anything else that Jerry would be involved in of that nature, no. I do not know of it.”
Paterno’s family continued to insist Thursday via a statement that Paterno’s account was not inconsistent with the facts, and he “always believed, as we do, that the full truth should be uncovered.”
But Paterno was no more interested in the full truth than Walt Disney.
In his final interview, he played the faux-naif who insisted he had “never heard of rape and a man.” Who hadn’t followed up on McQueary’s report out of squeamishness. Who was wary of interfering in university “procedure.” Who insisted it was unfair to put Penn State on trial along with a pedophile, and that this was not “a football scandal.”
In fact, in 2001 Paterno had every reason to suspect Sandusky was a serial defiler of children. In fact, Paterno was not reluctant to interfere in university procedure; he helped dictate it. In fact, this was a football scandal. The crimes were committed by a former assistant football coach in the football building. Ten boys, and 45 criminal counts, at least five of them molested on the Penn State campus after 1998 when Paterno committed the awful misjudgment of continuing to allow Sandusky to bring boys to his locker room, so sure was he that Sandusky was “a good guy.”
We can’t un-rape and un-molest those boys. We can’t remove them from the showers and seize them back from the hands of Sandusky. That should have been an unrelenting source of rage and grief to Paterno. Yet in perhaps the most damaging observation of all, the Freeh report accuses Paterno and his colleagues of “a striking lack of empathy” for the victims.
Everything else about Paterno must now be questioned; other details about him begin to nag. You now wonder if his self-defense was all an exercise in sealing off watertight compartments, leaving colleagues on the outside to drown. You wonder if he performed a very neat trick in disguising himself as a modest and benevolent man. The subtle but constant emphasis on his Ivy League education, the insistence that Penn State football had higher standards, now looks more like rampant elitism.
Undeniably, for many years Paterno did virtuous work at Penn State. His combined winning records and graduation rates were indeed much higher than those of his peers. It’s a relevant part of the Penn State affair and worth stating, because it contributed to the institutional response. The Freeh report cited “numerous individual failings,” but it also found “weaknesses of the University’s culture, governance, administration, compliance policies and procedures for protecting children.” As other commentators have rightly observed, Paterno’s huge successes helped form those potholes. He was the university’s culture.
He was the self-appointed arbiter of character and justice in State College. He had decided Sandusky was “a good man” in 1998, and he simply found it too hard to admit he made a fatal misjudgment and gave a child molester the office nearest to his. He was more interested in protecting a cardboard cutout legacy than the flesh and blood of young men.
The only explanation I can find for this “striking lack of empathy” is self-absorption. In asking how a paragon of virtue could have behaved like such a thoroughly bad guy, the only available answer is that Paterno fell prey to the single most corrosive sin in sports: the belief that winning on the field makes you better and more important than other people.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
More coverage from Washington Post Sports:
Document: Read the full Freeh report
Eugene Robinson: Joe Paterno’s shame