Most infections don't go away by themselves. Left untreated, they grow more virulent and widespread until the whole body is compromised.
That's essentially what happened at Penn State. An alleged child rape scandal inside the vaunted, moneyed football program was repeatedly handed off, covered up and allowed to fester. Last week, it finally brought down the entire chain of command, leaving in tatters the reputation of a proud (maybe too proud) university already fighting off budget cuts from an unsympathetic governor.
Now the alleged pedophile, former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, has been arrested and charged with preying on eight children from the Second Mile Foundation, which he founded to "help" disadvantaged kids.
The charges include a 2002 incident in the athletic facility's shower room, where then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary allegedly saw Mr. Sandusky sodomizing a boy of about 10. Rather than break up the assault or call police, Mr. McQueary reported it the next day to his boss, football god Joe Paterno.
Mr. Paterno later told Tim Curley, the former athletic director, who later told Gary Schultz, the vice president of finance and business, who later told President Graham Spanier.
Not one of them called police or initiated an investigation. Meanwhile, the list of child victims kept growing.
Mr. Paterno, having been outed for inaction, announced that he would retire at the end of the season, but instead was fired by the board of trustees. Mr. Spanier was forced to resign. Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz were charged with perjuring themselves before a grand jury and failing to report the 2002 incident to police. And Mr. McQueary, now an assistant coach, is the target of multiple threats.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is looking into possible violations of the duty to report. No one knows how many more victims will come forward. There may be some whopping civil suits in the offing. And on Friday, an offensive tackle from Colorado became the first recruit to withdraw his commitment to play next year for Penn State.
Nice job of protecting the institution, guys.
None of this, of course, holds a candle to the damage done to the child victims. Not a single adult apprised of this revolting situation sought to find out exactly what happened to them, or protect them, or even find out who they were.
Didn't any warning bells go off in Penn State's halls of power as the Catholic clergy's child abuse scandal spread like fire? Did no one see any parallels?
• A football coach with as much power over the school as the pope has over the church.
• A closed culture that protects itself above all others.
• A string of officials who could have stopped the alleged molester but didn't.
• A failure to recognize child sexual abuse as a criminal act.
Maybe it's time for all educational institutions to issue new instruction books throughout the organization.
Chapter 3: Child protection
1. If you see a child being raped in a locker-room shower, do something to intervene. Holler at the top of your lungs, push the guy away, move the child to safety, at the very least call 911 and stay until the police arrive -- do something to stop the attack. Do this even if -- especially if -- the rapist is a pillar of the community and someone you've known most of your life, because chances are he's been getting away with it for some time and will keep getting away with it unless you stop him. It might be tough to think of all this in the shock of the moment, so memorize in advance what's expected of you. Make a report to your superiors after, not instead of, taking the necessary steps.
Chapter 8: Thinking beyond your program
1. If a witness reports said rape to you, think of it as a violation of the child, not just the sanctity of your locker room. Taking the alleged perp's keys to your facility without calling police is tantamount to saying, "Molest kids if you must, just don't do it here."
Chapter 1: The buck stops here
If the above scenario winds up on your desk, keep asking questions until you get to the bottom of it. Demand details. "What, exactly, did you see?" Call police and child welfare. Offer to meet with the children who were harmed and their parents or guardians. Apologize. Keep drilling until the infection is isolated and wiped out. Call a press conference to explain what happened and what's being done about it. Answer questions as honestly as you can without inviting a libel suit. In other words, get out in front of a bad situation before it engulfs the entire institution.
It seems incredible that any of these points would need to be spelled out, but apparently they do. Otherwise, one wrong reinforces and compounds the next, no one takes responsibility, innocents keep getting harmed, until the whole rotten pyramid collapses.
Penn State eventually will come back from this sordid chapter, but it will take years and a lot of soul searching. One can only hope that the process includes making sure the university runs the football program, and not the other way around.
As the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke famously cautioned, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." But if they do nothing in a situation like this, are they still "good?"
I'd bet that those closest to Messrs. McQueary, Paterno, Curley, Schultz and Spanier believe they are. How much better for the children, the university and themselves if they had acted as they should have before the question ever arose.
Correction/Clarification: (Published November 21, 2011) A Sally Kalson column Nov. 13 quoted Irish-born British statesman Edmund Burke as having said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Burke expressed similar sentiments and this line has been widely attributed to him, but it has never been found in his writings.
Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1610).