Once Joe Paterno learned that his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was showering with a young boy in the Penn State football locker room, he had two choices: think of the child as his own and call police. Or not. He chose the latter. Paterno's "striking lack of empathy for the victims" enabled Sandusky to rape children with impunity for years. Only the fearless determination of a few brave survivors unmasked the football gods Sandusky and Paterno for the earthbound villains they were.
As we learned this week: "the most powerful leaders at the University -- Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley -- repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from the authorities, the University's Board of Trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large," according to the Freeh report (PDF) on the Penn State child rape scandal. They knew about Jerry Sandusky and looked the other way, leaving a monster free to prey, making the Penn State locker room an Abu Ghraib for young boys.
Penn State taught us that for every Sandusky assaulting our children there is likely a Paterno enabling him. What should we do as parents and voters to keep kids safe?
First, we begin with the basics for football dads, soccer moms and little league kids alike: no more idol worship. Trust for elders must be earned. We all must educate children at the youngest ages that private parts are private, no means no, and there is only one code of honor for everyone.
Second, use the Summer Olympics as a teaching moment: separate athletic athleticism from personal character. The drive that someone puts into on-the-field performance does not transfer into off-the-field excellence. Some people are indeed exemplary on and off the field, but valor in both venues must be proved, not presumed.
Third, voters must pressure political leaders, the NCAA, and state institutions to place the safety of children over the economics of sports. Pennsylvania lawmakers and the NCAA should begin by demanding suspension of Penn State football. Keep the students' eligibility to play elsewhere, but cancel the games. Human decency would suggest removing the Paterno statue and razing the Sandusky showers.
Fourth, shift the power dynamic by enshrining into law that no institution is more important than its most vulnerable child. To do this, recognize that Penn State -- like the Citadel and the Catholic pedophile priests http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/31/cardinal-timothy-dolan-archdiocese-milwaukee-payoff-abusive-priests_n_1559298.html? and the U.S. military rapists -- involves an unholy alliance of predator and enabler(s), aided and abetted by laws that do not help victims stand up for themselves and do not require persons in loco parentis to report child abuse and sexual assault. Penn State, Citadel, Catholic churches and the Pentagon all continue to place the onus on victims, not perpetrators, and that must change. Thus voters must demand that legislators pass laws to protect victims and whistleblowers while punishing predators and enablers.
I worked as a prosecutor watching Catholic priests charged with sex abuse and saw firsthand how the "circle the wagons" mentality revictimized the innocent, coddled the guilty, and made matters worse for everyone. So I say from experience, policymakers must act with moral force even -- especially -- when revered paternal figures do not. Joe Paterno looked away from his friend the child rapist because he valued his legacy more than Sandusky's victim. The one time character counted most, he failed. This cowardly cruelty screams for redress. Where character fails the law must step in: we must require caregivers to protect children by making them mandatory reporters of child abuse and sexual assault.
We cannot undo the harm done but for the sake of those brave enough to come forward, we can move forward as a society. What Sandusky and his enablers did was on them -- how we respond to help victims is on us.