When former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan was cleared of corruption charges in 1987, he stood on the steps of the courthouse and uttered some of the most famous and poignant words in recent memory: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
I thought of that this week when I heard former Pennsylvania Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina announce, without any ambiguity, that Joe Paterno was not involved in the Jerry Sandusky cover-up. Fina was interviewed on Showtime this past Wednesday, and in response to a question about whether he felt the football legend had conspired to conceal evidence of Sandusky’s guilt, he stated: “I do not. And ... I’m viewing this strictly on the evidence, not any kind of fealty to anybody. I did not find that evidence.”
This might not sound like a ringing endorsement of JoePa. In fact, further on in the interview, Fina conceded that Paterno “didn’t do enough” to put an end to the sordid affair. Interestingly, he used the coach’s own, sad words that he “should have done more.”
But, finally, someone involved in the prosecution of this criminal case has had the courage to come out and draw a line in the sand between tragic omission and criminal commission. Joe Paterno failed to live up to the high moral standards he demanded of others and, above all, of himself. But that doesn’t mean he deserves to be remembered as the man who facilitated the rape of little boys.
I expect to receive letters and emails telling me that I’m no better than the abusers themselves. This generally happens whenever someone refuses to jump on the sex-abuse train, a juggernaut that flies down the rails of our cultural conscience and crushes everyone and everything in its path. Unless you agree that every Catholic priest is derivatively guilty for the pedophilia scandal, you are an apologist for sodomists. And unless you agree that Joe Paterno deserves to burn in hell for what he didn’t do, you are at best blind and at worst sadistic.
By now, the lines have been drawn and there are very few people who will be swayed by Fina’s confession. Even those who defend Paterno won’t be fully satisfied with the prosecutor’s comments, because they refuse to believe that the coach did anything wrong at all. In some circles, the mere fact that he met with his assistant Mike McQueary and made a few phone calls absolves him from any further action.
Most of us, even those of us who loved the man and believe he was slandered, wouldn’t go that far. JoePa himself, the man who defined Penn State for well over three generations, wouldn’t go that far. Shocked by the velocity of his own downward spiral and genuinely devastated by the tragedy of the victims, Paterno admitted that he could have taken additional steps to make sure Sandusky was neutralized and brought to justice.
But at least we give this great man the benefit of the doubt. The others, a motley crew of disgruntled academics, publicity hounds, gun-shy trustees and members of the “Abuse Victims Industry” who exploit tragedy for their own questionable goals (including the members of my profession who represent the victims rarely on a pro bono basis, by the way) wanted blood. And they got it.
No matter how many Frank Finas come out to dispel the myth that Joe Paterno was intimately involved in a cover-up, there will always be the sense that the coach was in bed with abusers (excuse the tasteless yet unavoidable pun.) If you Google the name “Paterno” today, the first 10 items that come up have to do with the Sandusky case. It isn’t until you wade down through a lot of accusatory and vitriolic commentary that you get to his coaching record (even that now compromised) or an item about national championships and Heismans.
That’s not unexpected in this day and age, where the most recent and salacious material floats to the top like waste in a canal. But it is sad, because it completely distorts the overall significance of a man’s exceptional life.
People will say that Joe Paterno deserves to be remembered for this scandal because he prized his reputation more than the welfare of children. They would shrug their shoulders at Ray Donovan’s sad query about where he could go to reclaim what Shakespeare’s Cassio called “the immortal part of myself.”
The truly sad thing is that reputation is not immortal. It can be killed by innuendo and outsized expectation. It can be manipulated by those with ulterior motives and questionable agendas, and is one mistake away from being forever altered and deformed.
I for one am glad that Frank Fina made an attempt to restore to Joe Paterno some small measure of the good and valued name he’d built for himself in that famed valley.
But as another of Shakespeare’s heroes said, “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Even if there was, in fact, no evil.