The tragedy at Penn State

The Penn State student rioters who overturned a TV truck and reacted so angrily at Wednesday night's firing of Coach Joe Paterno picked the wrong villain. The media did not take down their longtime coach, the winningest in college football history. It was the alleged actions of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who is accused of molesting at least eight boys between 1994 and 1999, and those at the university who failed to take appropriate action when those claims were brought to their attention.

Sadly, that includes Coach Paterno.

What no doubt fueled the student protests — and those of the legion of Penn State football fans in Maryland and elsewhere, expressed this week on radio talk-shows, social media and other forums — is that Mr. Paterno is a beloved figure in sports. That admiration comes not just for winning two national championships and countless bowl games but for running a clean program, something all too uncommon in big-time college football. Integrity and honesty were the pillars of Penn State football as surely as the man on the sidelines in the thick, dark-framed glasses.

Yet, as a grand jury report makes clear, when Mr. Paterno became aware of an incident involving Mr. Sandusky allegedly molesting a boy in the showers of Penn State's locker room in 2002, he informed his school's athletic director but did little else. Most notably, he failed to tell the police. He recently issued a statement of regret saying he wishes he had done more.

No doubt there are many others who feel the same way — in hindsight. But why didn't the coach who famously stayed on top of every detail at Happy Valley, down to whether his players were turning in their schoolwork, show so little concern for Mr. Sandusky's alleged behavior at the time?

What seems to have happened at Penn State is reminiscent of what happened to the Catholic Church in dealing with child molestation charges against priests beginning in the 1980s. Abuse was not reported to the police. Church leaders thought such incidents would best be handled internally, and alleged molesters were sometimes shuffled off to new assignments.

The failure of Penn State leadership to take more substantial action years ago amounts to a cover-up. Two top officials have been charged with perjury and failing to report to police the alleged abuse. President Graham Spanier, who announced his unconditional support for those officials, was fired by the school's board of trustees at the same time as Mr. Paterno.

Yet, it's still not clear that everyone in State College, and elsewhere, quite "gets it." Mr. Paterno clearly expected to finish out the season as coach of the Nittany Lions, including this Saturday's final home game at Beaver Stadium against 19th-ranked Nebraska. Apparently, he thought that his behavior — what the state police commissioner has described as a lapse of "moral responsibility" — was not so big a deal when compared to his vaunted 46 years of coaching at the university.

Pennsylvania has a law on the books requiring doctors, nurses, school officials and others to report incidents of suspected child abuse. The purpose of the statute is not to put neglectful administrators in jail but to make sure such incidents are reported and investigated.

Telling one's supervisor and leaving it at that may meet the letter of the law, but it clearly does not meet the moral standards that Penn State's football program is supposed to be about.

Mr. Paterno told his supporters to pray for the children who were hurt. That's a fine sentiment, but he might have asked his fans to pray for those in Happy Valley who lacked perspective and good judgment and who showed such little care for those children in years past.

That's the real tragedy of all of this, not just the ignominious end to a storied coaching career. It's the tragedy of pride — of a coach, a president and others who considered themselves morally superior to others in their insulated world of college sports but took so little interest in crimes against children that, if a grand jury report is correct, were shocking and atrocious.

This is a lesson not just for Penn State or for college sports but for anyone who cares about the welfare of children. Studies have estimated that as much as 88 percent of child sexual abuse is never reported to authorities. Children can't protect themselves; it requires adults to question inappropriate sexual behavior — regardless of the consequences to a school or a football program or most anything else that pales in comparison to the welfare of an innocent child.

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