In the wake of the release of the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Penn State University child abuse scandal, even some of the late Joe Paterno’s most vociferous defenders have fallen silent. Pete Wehner wrote compellingly on Friday about the way this terrible story illustrates not only that each individual must choose between good and evil but also what happens when institutions fail to take human failings into account. Yet as we read and listen to people struggling to accept the truth about Paterno (especially those in Pennsylvania for whom Paterno and Penn State football symbolized something more than just sports excellence), we are still left with an important question that we struggle to answer. How can a man who was widely believed to be a pillar of his community and force for integrity in his sport and his university have stood by and let unspeakable crimes be committed on his watch by one of his closest associates?
Paterno’s defenders point to his many good works and ask us to look at his life as a totality rather than solely through the lens of the crimes that for all intents and purposes he appears to have condoned. But it was this that led to his downfall. Like his legions of followers, he was so convinced of the value of all that he had done, that he seemed to have believed that preserving that legacy was more important than putting an end to the abuse being committed by his friend and colleague. Even more to the point, he was so convinced of his good intentions and the righteousness of his work that he came to see himself as above scrutiny. So while we may never know with certitude exactly what Paterno thought and why he acted as he did, this is actually a very recognizable pattern of behavior. We have no shortage of politicians who are similarly besotted with their own high opinion of themselves and willing to forgive any of their own personal failings because they think their cause is just.