There are the obvious takeaways from the Freeh report: A university where image was everything. A culture where football was near-sacred. A system that made it too easy for crimes or violations to go unnoticed. And, above all, a fundamental failure to protect children.
But look close enough at the Sandusky case as a whole, and another pattern starts to emerge from the separate storylines.
It started with Jerry Sandusky. At first, no one had any reason to doubt him. Here was a man who, for years, was regarded as a community hero, devoting his life to helping children better theirs.
As it started to seem that his spotless reputation was hiding something much darker, the first instinct for many was to ignore the warning signs and trust the belief that the rumors weren’t true.
When those warning signs were brought to the attention of those in power — former Penn State President Graham Spanier, former Athletic Director Tim Curley, former Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz and late and former football coach Joe Paterno — investigators said the men hesitated to act, though others trusted they would.
As one Board of Trustees member put it Thursday, “quite simply, we did not force the issue” for more answers on Sandusky when given the chance. To the trustees and many others, Spanier was one of the most respected and responsible leaders in higher education. They felt they had no reason to think otherwise.
As a whole, the community wanted to believe that the board and the university itself could, too, be trusted to guard against the kind of crimes that occurred. But the board failed to hold leaders accountable and the university became a repeated setting for Sandusky’s abuse.
And then there’s Paterno. Through years of building a football program revered for its apparent embodiment of “Success with Honor” and his undeniable generosity to the university, the football coach carved out his own untouchable reputation in the eyes of the Penn State community.
One look at the bronze statue at the corner of campus says it all: He was an icon.
The truth: He wasn’t the saint many wanted him to be. He was far from perfect, and it’s time to admit that. At the end of the day, he was a man who failed to step up as a leader at the very moment when it was most important for him to do so.
We put our faith in these men. We put our faith in our university. Others did the same.
But, as it’s becoming painfully clear, so much of this mess was allowed to continue because too many people clung to the belief that individuals and institutions were idyllic — so much so that they were either blinded to the mistakes right in front of them or flat-out refused to deal with the ones that were brought to their attention.
And that weight that we’re collectively carrying now, with the wake-up call provided by the fallout since last autumn and the report issued this week, is largely a lesson in the dangers of blind faith.
Faith isn’t dangerous in and of itself. What’s catastrophic, as this case shows, is its potential to spiral into willful ignorance.
So from here, we could take down a statue. We could rename a library, an ice cream flavor or a childcare center. We could call off football — for a season, or for good.
But those gestures, however symbolic, wouldn’t heal any suffering or take back any mistakes or do anything to prevent future moral failings.
No matter what other reforms might take place, we all need to commit ourselves to applying the lessons of the Sandusky case on a personal level.
Those of us who were at the university will leave Penn State forever shaped by what’s happened since November and what’s left to unfold. We need to learn from the mistakes made by our leaders, our school and ourselves.
We need to remember that no one — not even the best among us — should be viewed as perfect beyond doubt.
When we go out into the world into careers and families and lives after Penn State, the best thing we can do to reconcile what’s happened is to commit ourselves to never again settling for ignorance.