Make no mistake, the charges levied against former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky are serious and awful. The victims of the alleged crimes deserve our collective compassion and support.
Charged with 40 counts relating to the alleged sexual abuse of young boys, Sandusky's purported crimes are dreadful atrocities.
But, as terrible as the allegations are in the Penn State scandal, we must resist the urge to form judgment while Sandusky's case is stuck in legal limbo.
As difficult as it may be to fathom, in the eyes of Lady Justice, Sandusky is not yet a guilty man.
Over a century ago, the United States Supreme Court opined in Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432 (1895): "Presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law."
This cornerstone of our criminal justice system cannot be forgotten, even in the face of the most heinous of crimes, even in the face of Penn State.
Sandusky stands as a man accused of producing abhorrent calamity—yet he is not guilty, not at this time.
Paterno, on the other hand is not experiencing this same legal protection.
Is Paterno a scapegoat?
Paterno is not being tried in the criminal court, he is not accused of any crime.
The longtime Penn State head coach is, however, being tried in the court of public opinion. And he is losing.
When the average person thinks of Penn State, they think of the Nittany Lion and then they think of Joe Paterno.
For better or for worse, Paterno is Penn State football, and for better or for worse, Paterno is the public face of the Penn State scandal.
The Penn State scandal involves six authority figures—the Penn State Six—all of whom failed in their own way to properly handle a difficult situation.
The following events allegedly occurred in Penn State's Lasch Football Building in 2002:
- Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary (Authority Figure No. 1) walked in on the commission of a sex crime against a child, allegedly perpetrated by Sandusky (Authority Figure No. 2).
- Processing the incident overnight, McQueary reported the crime to Paterno (Authority Figure No. 3).
- Paterno immediately informed Penn State athletic director Tim Curley (Authority Figure No. 4).
- Curley informed his supervisor, Penn State Senior Vice President Gary Schultz (Authority Figure No. 5).
- Schultz himself or Schultz and Curley together met with Penn State school president Graham Spanier (Authority Figure No. 6) and proposed a course of action to address the problem.
- Spanier approved a resolution that simply ordered Sandusky not to bring children from Sandusky's youth camp to the football building on campus.
No one bothered to call the police or trigger an arrest for the felonious assault they all knew about.
By that token alone, they are all guilty of the sin of omission.
What's worse is Schultz and Curley specifically knew of Sandusky's youth summer camp, yet deliberately chose to ignore the sex offense and simply asked Sandusky not to bring his campers back to a Penn State building.
When asked his opinion, Pennsylvania state police Commissioner Frank Noonan said: "I think you have the moral responsibility, anyone... I think you have a moral responsibility to call us."
This isn't a case of covering up a spill with the living room rug.
This is a case of covering up a terrible, disgusting secret with a quilt sown together by at least six people.
Omission is an immoral act of neglect—and that is exactly what has happened.
Even though none of the Penn State Six reported the crime to police, McQueary and Paterno were praised by the Pennsylvania grand jury for reporting the crime to their respective supervisors.
In that sense, McQueary may be considered the least guilty of the bunch.
In Stanley Milgram's famous experiment, the Yale psychologist discovered the strong power of authority and subordinate obedience: when a person sees themselves as merely "an instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, they no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions."
McQueary observed his superior engaged in misconduct, but rank likely prevented McQueary from doing much other than reporting the event to Paterno.
Several individuals clearly failed in their roles of leadership. Three are facing criminal charges, a fourth is retiring and a fifth is in the process of being removed.
The sixth, McQueary, was in a position of the least amount of authority during the Penn State scandal and was the only party subordinate to Sandusky. He is a key witness in the ongoing case, but his status as Nittany Lions assistant coach is not yet in jeopardy.
This scandal is on the cusp of becoming a full-blown tragedy, if it isn't already.
With great power comes great responsibility.
Unfortunately, none of the six charged with responsibility at Penn State in 2002 were able to perform their definitive duties.