Editorial: The lessons of a scandal

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 10, 2011

Although the hallowed playing fields of State College, Penn., are worlds away from Rowan County, the child sex abuse scandal that has engulfed Penn State’s football program and Coach Joe Paterno has at least two points that bear emphasis here as this deplorable case unfolds.
1. Sexual predators are far more likely to be trusted acquaintances than anonymous “monsters.” Although social media sites have opened up new avenues of exploitation, abusers are still likely to have a friendly, familiar face. More than 90 percent of juvenile sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator. If the allegations against former coach Jerry Sandusky prove true, it would fit that predatory profile. In addition to being a prominent coach, Sandusky had established his own non-profit to work with at-risk youth, Second Mile charity, with Paterno listed as an honorary board member. As we’ve seen before, that sort of power and prestige not only serves to mask predatory behavior but heightens the pressure to treat institutions as more important than abuse victims by either denying abuse is occurring or trying to handle it quietly without exposure to a scandal. Inside the institution, it’s called damage control; outside, it’s called a coverup.
2. Those who believe child abuse is occurring have not only a moral obligation to report it to authorities but in most states a legal one as well. To its credit, North Carolina’s law is clearcut and all inclusive in this regard. “Any person or institution” who suspects abuse is required to report it to the Department of Social Services. Not much gray area there. When it comes to reporting abuse, a school maintenance worker bears the same responsibility as a college president. Pennsylvania’s mandatory reporting law is somewhat narrower, listing specific occupations where abuse reporting is mandatory. College football coaches, athletic directors and vice presidents are not specifically mentioned, but surely people in those positions would understand the intent of the law and their responsibility. Recognizing responsibility and having the courage to carry it out, however, are two different things — especially when a premier college football program is at stake.
Because of the college and the coaches involved, this story has become an extraordinary media spectacle, rife with speculation about the fallout for Paterno (who was fired late Wednesday, along with the college president) and the school. In a sports and celebrity obsessed culture, perhaps that’s inevitable. But let’s not lose sight of who the victims are here — and they aren’t Joe Paterno, Penn State or its football program.