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As Paterno Leaves, Questions Remain on Penn State’s Legal Obligations

November 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno announced he will retire at the end of the season after days of scrutiny over his handling of allegations of sexual abuse by his former coach Jerry Sandusky, who was arrested Saturday. Ray Suarez discusses the scandal with trial lawyer Jeff Anderson.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, more fallout from the Penn State sexual abuse scandal and the announcement that coaching great Joe Paterno will retire.

Ray Suarez has our update.

RAY SUAREZ: Late this morning, the legendary coach, who was Penn State in many ways, announced he’d leave after this season, amid the child sex abuse scandal engulfing the university.

In a statement, Joe Paterno said: “I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case. I grieve for the children and their families. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

After 62 years on campus, 46 as head coach, 409 wins, a major college record, and two national titles, all of Joe Paterno’s career stats were overwhelmed by a single number: eight. That’s the number of young boys allegedly molested by Jerry Sandusky over 15 years, according to initial charges.

The former longtime defensive coach who retired in 1999 was once Paterno’s heir apparent. Sandusky is now 67. He was arrested Saturday on 40 counts of child sexual abuse.

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From there, the focus quickly fell on what Paterno did and didn’t do when a graduate assistant told him in 2002 that he’d seen Sandusky raping a child in a locker room shower. Paterno didn’t inform police. Instead, he told Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley. Now Curley and a Penn State vice president are charged with perjury and failure to report the alleged abuse to authorities.

Paterno has not been charged.

CROWD: We love Joe! We love Joe!

RAY SUAREZ: Last night, there was no mistaking the show of support for the embattled coach outside his home. Hundreds of students gathered for the man dubbed JoePa.

Paterno spoke to the focus of the case.

JOE PATERNO, Penn State head football coach: There’s been some criticism of the way we have handled some of the poor victims. You know, my wife and I have, we 17 grandkids, from 16 to 3. And we pray for them every night. And we’re going to start praying for those kids that got — got involved with some of the problems that were talked about.

RAY SUAREZ: The exuberance didn’t end, and the coach emerged once more.

JOE PATERNO: It’s hard for me to tell you how much this means to me. All right? You guys — I have lived for this place. I have lived for people like you guys.

RAY SUAREZ: For now, Paterno plans to be on the sidelines this Saturday, when Penn State plays Nebraska, in the Nittany Lions’ final home game this season. But he may never get the chance to coach that game. The university’s board of trustees could order his immediate ouster.

Multiple reports this evening suggested that University President Graham Spanier could resign or be forced out by school trustees tonight. And the U.S. Department of Education announced it will investigate Penn State’s handling of the child abuse case.

We look at the questions surrounding the school, including the legal and ethical issues at stake. Jeff Anderson is a trial lawyer who runs his own practice specializing in representing victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Jeff, let’s begin with where this story begins, with a member of the football team staff seeing what he thinks is the commission of a crime in a university facility, Jerry Sandusky raping a young man, a boy. What legal obligations, not suggestions, not ethical obligations, but what legal obligations come into play at that moment?

JEFF ANDERSON, attorney: Well, every adult in this scenario has a legal obligation to report any suspicion of sexual abuse, any suspicion to those trained to investigate, that is, to child protection or law enforcement.

And the failure of the individuals to do that is a failure of their legal obligation, not to mention their moral.

RAY SUAREZ: In this case, the young graduate assistant reported to his superior, Joe Paterno. What — now, at that point, it becomes a hearsay story. What’s Mr. Paterno’s responsibility at that point, legally?

JEFF ANDERSON: Well, yes. First, reporting it up the line or down the line doesn’t make it. You report it to police. And they investigate it, because that’s what they’re trained.

Joe Paterno’s responsibility once he received the report was to do the same thing, turn it over to law enforcement, let them investigate it. And Joe Paterno failed in his obligations, both moral and legal. And that really leads to the larger question here. This is institutional failure, as well as individual failure of trusted adults.

And it is the institution that failed the kids on multiple levels, from the top to the bottom. And so the resignation of Joe Paterno or the resignation of the president in itself doesn’t address the culture and the institutional failure. What really has to be done here now is the institution has to acknowledge their failures and rigorously commit themselves to training and preventing this from happening again and rigorously reaching out and acknowledging the failures of the past.

RAY SUAREZ: In this particular case, Joe Paterno said he turned it over to his superiors.

Now, at that point, he says he’s dispensed his obligations. His spokesman, his own son, Scott Paterno, says he’s dispensed his obligations. And, in fact, no one is saying they’re contemplating charges against Joe Paterno.

What happens next?

JEFF ANDERSON: Well, when you hear of that, it is remindful of what happens in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. It’s really just obedience to silence and a culture of self-protection, putting reputation above safety of children. Reporting up the line or down the line and telling others in that culture of silence and self-protection doesn’t protect kids. The only thing that protects the kids is action.

That is reporting to law enforcement and then training those that are required to report an act. In this case, they didn’t. And so, as a result, we know of eight. We know there are dozens more yet suffering in silence ready to come forward. And we know this institution is a real opportunity for a teaching moment, for them to learn the lesson of their failures and then rigorously employ practices that will prevent other kids from being harmed across all cultural lines and institutional boundaries.

RAY SUAREZ: In this case, you’re dealing with an institution in Penn State University that is — takes up a huge space in the culture of Central Pennsylvania.

You’re dealing with people who are prominent, well known in every corner of the state, but especially right there in State College, Pa.

Does it become more difficult? Is it more complicated when you’re dealing with prominent people inside a culture that is very much devoted to the maintenance and the success of that place?

JEFF ANDERSON: Well, really, you hit the nail on the head.

The problem is, the more powerful and revered the institution, the more difficult it becomes for anybody within it to expose the underbelly or report the sexual abuse and take action. And because it is such a powerful and revered institution, everybody here deferred to the institution to preserve its reputation, and forgot about the kids.

And that is what is the problem in our most powerful and trusted institutions. The kids are at greatest peril, because the most powerful and trusted predators in those institutions are given the most protection.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it often in case in your practice where molesters are not scary strangers, but people who go out of their way over time to gain the confidence and create intimacy with their eventual victims?

JEFF ANDERSON: Well, in our practice across the country for three decades and in Pennsylvania has been a demonstration of serial predators who are very trustworthy, the most prominent in our community, given great deference because they are so trusted, and they continue to offend and re-offend, even with those around them knowing, not wanting to believe or report.

And thus they’re given permission. And, in effect, the fox is put back into the henhouse and kept in that position of trust, most notably demonstrated in the Catholic clerical culture, where we have seen that demonstrated time and time again across the country, and as we have seen it demonstrated in other protective institutions, where powerful figures are given deference because they — we don’t want to believe, we don’t want to see, we don’t want to hear, and, when they get caught, oftentimes are afraid to act or believe that they could do what Sandusky did.

RAY SUAREZ: What he’s allegedly — what he’s been accused of doing.

But, Jeff Anderson, thanks a lot for joining us tonight.

JEFF ANDERSON: You’re welcome.