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Sandusky will pay for his crimes, now it's time for Penn State to atone

by | National Columnist
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Jerry Sandusky and the late Joe Paterno share a laugh together in 1999. (AP)  
Jerry Sandusky and the late Joe Paterno share a laugh together in 1999. (AP)  

Convicting Jerry Sandusky (on 45 of the 48 counts) was the easy part. The painful, horrifying, nauseating part, yes, but the weight of the evidence against him and his acts of child molestation ran into the metric tons. An acquittal was, even in our society where the rich and famous have a leg up in the courtroom, simply unfathomable. Even his lawyer, Joe Amendola, said so.

So yes, it was the easy part. Now you may argue whether his acts were monstrosities born of madness or malevolence, and we allow for that debate because raping children is by its very nature an insanity, but his conviction only closes one book while opening another.

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In other words, we are entering the part of the crime where we learn the price not of the deed, but of the cover-up.

In some ways, Penn State's apparent decision to keep silent about Sandusky's behavior is even less fathomable than the acts themselves, because those charged with speaking up didn't share his pathologies. Gary Schultz, the former vice president for finance, has been accused of knowing and even keeping secret files on Sandusky, and former university president Graham Spanier and former athletic director Tim Curley are also accused of being aware of Sandusky's crimes.

And we haven't even gotten to Joe Paterno, whose iconography in central Pennsylvania is such that figuring out his level of culpability in the face of his other contributions may require a math beyond the level of even the most skilled physicists.

That, though, is a separate issue that only obscures the central point, which is that Sandusky brought a hideous problem to the university, and the university did so little that it could be confused with being nothing at all.

For that, there is a price tag. And Penn State will have to decide whether it can pay it, or whether it is worth fighting with the victims over the concept of "protecting the brand." And then there is the price it has to pay after the checks clear.

The obvious answer to the first is, pay the money without complaint, apologize profusely, and offer the psychological support denied earlier.

The lawyer's answer is, "Not so fast there. We need to determine with mailed fists how much abuse is actually the legal responsibility of the school and its representatives." It's the part of the law that makes everyone want to wash the skin off their hands.

For those without law degrees, ambiguities and tricks of the language are not endured well. Their math is simple: Children were abused by someone connected with the school, sometimes on school grounds. People in a position to know may actually have known. They are, in the immortal phrase of the jury at the end of The Producers, "incredibly guilty."

The law, of course, says lots of things, often at the same time, and Penn State is the galactic center of that part of the country. Attacking and demanding restitution from the institution that sustains the people of that part of the country makes this seeming slam-dunk more of an off-balance 18-footer with a hand in the shooter's face.

But there should be a price paid for the institutional silence past the money, and it should hurt, and it should leave deep scars. The money is fungible, and Penn State will recoup it in time. People still believe in the university's mission, and they will shoulder the financial pain.

But while they are doing so, they should always remember why they are doing so -- because silence in the face of evil is an evil of its own. It is a separate and free-standing evil that cannot be defended with arguments of relativism or comparative guilt. And the payment for that crime should exceed check-writing hand cramp.

The pain should serve as a reminder that the brand so many people take pains to defend must constantly re-earn that level of devotion. The brand is only as worthwhile as the acts done in its name, and even if Jerry Sandusky's crimes were not done in the name of the school, the name of the school demanded that those crimes be stopped by those who could do so.

The Penn State brand failed the children here, because those most responsible for burnishing it put the brand first. And it isn't a matter of arguing whether Sandusky's acts were worse than the school's silence. They are two separate acts, and the perpetrators must pay their different prices for doing so.

Sandusky will pay his, in prison and perpetual ignominy. The school must pay its cost, too, by remembering constantly in thought and deed that an institution is defined by the acts of its people, not the other way around.

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