Accept, for the moment, the truth of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s version of his role in the sexual abuse allegations involving one of his former assistants.

Acknowledge his illustrious accomplishments, on and off the football field. Empathize with his family as he, weakened and at the age of 85, battles lung cancer.

There still is no excuse for his failure to respond more aggressively to the allegations, which involved children. The college’s board of trustees was absolutely right to hold him accountable for his abdication of leadership.

“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” Paterno said of his decision not to pursue more actively a report in 2002 that the assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, had been observed sexually abusing a young boy in a shower at the school’s football facility.

“I backed away,” he told reporter Sally Jenkins in an interview published in The Washington Post on Jan. 15. It was Paterno’s his first interview since Sandusky’s arrest last November on numerous child sex abuse charges and Paterno’s ouster as head football coach.

Paterno, as his attorney who monitored the interview made clear, fulfilled his legal obligations by passing along to other college officials the report by a graduate assistant coach, Mike McQueary. The real fault, Paterno seemed to suggest, lay with these officials, who he thought had the expertise to do the right thing.

Paterno, by his own admission, found McQueary to be credible, indeed to be profoundly disturbed by what he had witnessed. The head coach knew the allegation involved inappropriate sexual activity with a child in a shower.

He deliberated overnight about how to handle it, according to his account, and subsequently told his superiors, “Hey, we got a problem.”

Yet Paterno never once — in the six years during which he would interact with former athletic director Tim Curley and school vice president Gary Schultz and during which Sandusky was alleged to have gone on to victimize other boys — gave any thought to asking what had happened?

“You know, I probably should have gone back and said, ‘Hey, where are we with this kid? With this coach?'” Paterno acknowledged.

This was a man with legendary status at the university, who had never before been bashful about rattling the chains of command. He knew about Sandusky’s extensive involvement with a foundation serving at-risk youth; indeed, it was because of that work, seen as distracting Sandusky from his duties as defensive coordinator, that Paterno suggested he retire in 1999.

Sandusky and the university officials who face charges of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse all have pleaded not guilty. A number of investigations into the university’s handling of events undoubtedly will yield more information.

Many questions remain unanswered. Whether Paterno should have done more is not one of them.

Editorial by The Washington Post


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.