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Institutional madness at Penn State

Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno assistant coach Mike McQueary let their institutidecide how address child’s rape.  |

Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno and assistant coach Mike McQueary let their institution decide how to address a child’s rape. | Gene J. Puskar~AP

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Updated: December 14, 2011 8:18AM

As the heinous and surreal details of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s alleged destruction of innocent souls are brought to light, we can only start looking up the chain of command and wonder how this could happen.

With the rumored news that Sandusky perhaps — and there is no other way to put this — ‘‘pimped out’’ young boys from his Second Mile charity to certain large donors, we must first suppress a gag reflex that doesn’t want to fade.

If Sandusky, who is out on $100,000 bond for his sexual-assault charges, does not fear for his life, it is because he remains in the eerily insular cocoon known as State College, Pa.

When Penn State students rioted on campus Wednesday night and tipped over a news van, their anger was over the dismissal of famed head coach Joe Paterno for his cover-up role in the scandal.

Predictably, for a campus that has turned a crusty old man with a whistle and a lot of football wins into a living saint, the target of their wrath was not the message, but the messenger.

As I watched the demonstrators on TV, I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if the abused boys themselves, many of them now of college age or older, had been there on a stage, lined up in silence. What if they had marched out to the 50-yard line Saturday at Penn State’s home game against Nebraska? Would the football-crazed mob have turned on them, too?

We must look upward for resolution, because looking downward leads only to murk.

And above, we have the power of an institution.

The institution, in this case, is a university. But it is also the state of Pennsylvania itself, for which Penn State is the flagship school, behind which many citizen’s pride and confidence rests.

An institution, by definition, is something that has tradition, power and symbolism. The Boy Scouts, the Roman Catholic Church, Goldman-Sachs, the National Rifle Association, Christmas — those are also institutions.

And the encoded role of an institution is to preserve itself, against all foes, right or wrong, forever.

‘Safeguard your good name’

Consider: James Hogan, the late bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese that includes State College, Pa., stated in 1994, after two dozen of his priests had been, as USA Today put it, ‘‘credibly accused of sexually abusing minors,’’ that the church itself was more important than the children. ‘‘Painful as the situation is,’’ Hogan wrote one of the accused priests, ‘‘we must safeguard your own good name, protect the priestly reputation and prevent scandal from touching the church — even if unjust.’’

Then think this out:

When 28-year-old Penn State grad assistant Mike McQueary, a former starting quarterback for the Nittany Lions who still holds the one-half total passing yardage record of 219, saw the legendary Sandusky anally raping a 10-year-old boy in the Penn State showers, he might have nearly blacked out.

People wonder why he didn’t attack Sandusky. Of course, he should have. There are things worse than violence, and child rape is one of them.

But after regaining his senses and staggering away, McQueary must have thought: I have to do something. This is horrible! Then: If I tell Coach Paterno, this might go nowhere, because if Sandusky is found guilty of child rape, the two national championships which he engineered with his defense become nothing. Joe Pa becomes nothing. The football program becomes nothing. The school becomes nothing. The circle will widen. . . . Maybe I become nothing.

Still, McQueary did tell Paterno. And, predictably, nothing happened.

Whistle-blowers don’t often win. They are stigmatized, marginalized, fired, obliterated.

Institutions hate whistle-blowers. As stated, institutions will do whatever is needed to preserve themselves.

Writing on the Baltimore Sun blog Monday, former Penn Sate student and campus journalist Chris Korman said, ‘‘I wish I could share in the common sentiment — shock — being expressed by just about everyone over what happened at my alma mater, Penn State.

‘‘But . . . the fact that the most powerful people at the university conspired to cover [the sex crimes] up barely registers. Anyone who has followed how the leaders of the institution handled themselves publicly for about the last decade should have feared this could happen.

‘‘During my time working at The Daily Collegian, I became accustomed to an administration that often rebuffed even the simplest requests for information. The president, Graham Spanier, corresponded with us almost exclusively through e-mail, and then barely. The athletic director, Tim Curley, now charged with perjury and failing to report what he knew to authorities, rarely talked to reporters except to recite whatever pious marketing scheme he and his cronies had conjured up that week.’’

The system survives

Spanier and Curley, as well as vice president Gary Schultz and Paterno, are gone.

But the institution above the Penn State institution — the place where our eyes must now go, the mighty NCAA cartel — remains unscathed.

That’s the real institution, and it will never voluntarily change. Institutions fundamentally are incapable of policing themselves.

The NCAA’s essential hypocrisy — that it governs amateur ‘‘student-athletes’’ playing ‘‘extracurricular’’ games for fun and education — makes such ugliness as the Sandusky case possible.

You think Sandusky even could have started his trout pond if he hadn’t had the umbrella of Penn State’s football program and the endorsement of the NCAA, high above that, providing his cover?

It’s sick. But it’s true.

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