Coming Clean Is Only Play for Penn State, Paterno: Harlan Coben

Nov. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Dear Penn State: Please do the right thing. Come clean. Totally and completely. There is a time and place for privacy and discretion. This is neither.

We will ask questions. You need to give full answers. Don’t sugarcoat them. It’s too late for that (always was, in fact). Don’t spin or check with focus groups or worry about how your answers will sound. They will sound bad. But accept that they will also sound better than more lies would -- and that they cannot possibly sound worse than what we’ve already heard.

Do not circle the wagons. Do not worry about legal ramifications or liability or exposure. This is too big, too monstrous for that. You are a wonderful institution of learning with a rich academic tradition. I have visited your campus several times and have always left it feeling uplifted. Please now remember the integrity with which you were established. You will be judged -- not only by what has already occurred but also by what you choose to do about it now.

So please tell the truth.

First, when did someone on campus first suspect Jerry Sandusky of sexual assault?

According to the grand jury report, in 1998, Sandusky admitted that he showered with an 11-year-old boy. This was known by campus police, the State College Police Department, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and the Office of the Centre County District Attorney. Are we supposed to believe that this information never got back to head football coach Joe Paterno or anyone in authority on campus? How could that be? If an English teacher were being investigated, I’d guarantee that the head of the department would know about it.

Given the importance of Penn State football, are we really supposed to believe that no one from the campus police, the state public welfare department or the district attorney’s office told any of the university coaches or officials?

So who knew? And how much did they know? And who did they tell? And who stopped the investigation?

Do the right thing.

In 1999 -- one year after the incident -- Sandusky retired at age 55, having served the football program under Paterno for 32 years. Was that timing a coincidence?

Are we really supposed to believe that neither Paterno nor anyone on his staff wondered why Sandusky suddenly retired? We await the honest answers here.

In 2002, with the retired Sandusky given full access to Penn State’s campus and facilities, 28-year-old graduate assistant Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in the football building’s showers, according to the grand jury report. McQueary reacted, it appears, not by interceding but by leaving the scene and telling his father and then Paterno. Many people are now focused on Paterno’s reaction to the news -- he simply reported it to his superiors -- but I’m having a hard time with McQueary’s response.

Most people I know like to believe that if we were a big strong former PSU quarterback and saw a man in his late 50s anally penetrating a 10-year-old boy, we’d do more than walk away, “distraught,” to quote the grand jury report, tell a few people and then keep quiet about it for almost a decade.

Mike McQueary, why have you stayed silent all these years? If you left the room because you were just so shaken, then say so. If you were worried about your future with the team, you need to let us know that, too. If you were intimidated because Sandusky had been your coach, let us know. And if he or anyone else threatened you in any way, we need to know that, too.

And then, ask yourself this: If you saw a 58-year-old man you didn’t know anally penetrating a 10-year-old boy in, say, a movie theater, would you really not intercede or call the cops?

Do the right thing.

This is important, Penn State, not only because you need to cleanse your soul and not only because every Penn State University graduate I know is sickened by this. They know that there is only thing that can save their alma mater -- and that is the ugly truth. Sometimes you have to tear down a lot in order to rebuild. We can learn from the truth. We can help make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Pedophiles have one thing in common with authorities who need to answer for their actions: They know the fine art of self-justification.

In the grand jury report, Penn State officials referred to Sandusky’s actions with terms like “horsing around” -- a horrifying justification if ever there was one. Did they honestly believe that what he did with these boys was no big deal? Or did they think the common good -- the football program -- was best served by dealing with it in-house? Or were they just worried about their own jobs and reputations?

Sandusky, of course, rationalized, too. He probably told himself that he was a good man doing good. His charity helped kids -- lots of them. He might insist that he cared about children -- that he wanted to make their lives better. Sure, his love for children may have had a sexual element that outsiders couldn’t understand, but that’s not such bad thing and/or hey, God made him this way.

Nauseated? Me too.

So you see, Penn State, you need to do the right thing because it might help us the next time. It might prevent more cases like this, and that’s a hell of lot more important than some kind of football legacy. Paterno’s resignation at the end of the season is a first step, but not nearly enough. Those students proudly smiling and cheering him Tuesday might want to think about that. It is easy to dismiss them as young. It is important that we all learn from the truth.

That means total honesty and transparency. It means not just loss of jobs, but full explanations. And it may mean criminal convictions.

(Harlan Coben is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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