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Rabbi Joshua Hess

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The Final Chapter of Joe Paterno's Legacy

Posted: 11/10/2011 10:16 am

After becoming the winningest college football coach in Division I history with victory No. 409, the book detailing the legendary career of Joe Paterno was complete. Not only did the book describe him as a great coach and competitor, but it spoke highly and fondly of his superb character and moral integrity. The fact that he is still coaching at the young age of 84 shows us how much he has meant to the university, his players and college football. That was the Joe Paterno we knew.

Everything changed this past Sunday. It was then that we realized that a chapter of his life's story was missing from the book. A chapter that would change our perception of this legendary man. His integrity is being questioned and his accomplishments are becoming immaterial. That's what happens when your former defensive coordinator is charged with 40 counts of child abuse and molestation. And that's what happens when you hear that your former defensive coordinator is showering with a 10-year-old boy and all you do is bring the matter to the attention of your athletic director.

There is no doubt that, as the face of Penn State University, Paterno had the power to do whatever he wanted to remedy the situation. Instead of dealing with it seriously and in a timely manner, he passed the buck. Although his reporting of the allegations to his superiors may have satisfied his legal obligation, on a moral level, he did not do enough to ensure the safety and security of the children who were then at risk or who later became at risk due to their contact with Jerry Sandusky, Paterno's former assistant.

Paterno is not the only one at fault. The entire administration at the university has been criticized, rightly, for not alerting the authorities about the alleged sexual abuse. While Sandusky was not on Paterno's staff in 2002, it was still very much in their purview to deal with this appropriately, as he had full access to the university campus.

In all honesty, if the nature of the transgression brought to Paterno's attention had been something a bit more innocuous, like players selling team memorabilia, as in the case of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, then I would have been accepting of Paterno simply alerting the AD of potential violations. But when we are dealing with kids and sexual abuse, how can anyone be excused for such inaction? Children's lives are at stake! Allegations of child molestation cannot be treated like any other ordinary accusation.

While nothing can excuse Paterno's failure to report the allegations to law enforcement authorities, Paterno's deserves credit for recognizing his moral failure and accepting responsibility for it, saying, "This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." I applaud his willingness to accept responsibility for his grave misjudgment.

The truth is that the Bible is very clear about our moral responsibility to protect others against injustice. Among the myriad of verses which implore us to protect the vulnerable, the most critical one is, "Do not stand idly by, while your fellow's blood is shed." This commandment requires us to do whatever we can to save and protect the life of a fellow human being.

True, Paterno didn't stand idly by. He brought the information to the Athletic Director. But doing the minimum when children's lives are hanging in the balance is tantamount to doing nothing. I'm glad that Paterno came clean and spoke about his mistake. I also applaud him for making the right decision by stepping down as coach at the end of the season. To Paterno's dismay, the board of trustees at the university voted to have him fired, effective immediately.

While the authors scramble to add this latest chapter to Paterno's book, I hope that this will not be the last chapter. I pray that the final one will revolve around what he promised, to "spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university."

Good luck, Joe. It's not going to be easy.

 

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