Football opener not Penn State's only concern

Penn State opens the 2012 football season on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. (Gene J. Puskar/AP file photo)

Football is unlikely to be the only thing on the minds of the thousands of fans who stream into Beaver Stadium before the noon kickoff.

As the first gathering of Nittany Nation since former Pennsylvania State University assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sex attacks on 10 boys, the season opener also represents the unofficial launch of the next stage in Penn State’s response to the scandal.

There have been devastating revelations about the failure of university officials, including disgraced football coaching legend Joe Paterno, to root out Sandusky. Paterno died before Sandusky’s conviction — for which the 68-year-old former Paterno assistant likely will spend the rest of his life in jail — but an in-house investigation blasted Paterno and other school officials, including former PSU president Graham B. Spanier, for their inaction.

The stinging conclusion of the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh was that school officials, for all their denials, “never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.”

Those words must stand as a rallying cry at Penn State, as well as in the wider community, to fight against child sexual abuse wherever it’s found. Harrisburg lawmakers, for instances, must open the courts doors to long-ago victims.

Encouraging reforms were announced this week at Penn State. The university under Spanier’s successor, Rodney A. Erickson, has signed off on steps aimed at assuring abuse allegations aren’t covered up again, as the Freeh report alleged.

Athletic programs will come under the scrutiny of a new integrity officer, and <NO1>former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell will serve as <NO>an independent monitor will oversee compliance with sanctions that include a four-year bowl ban, the loss of football scholarships, and a $60 million fine.

While Penn State gets to work on the process of changing an insular culture that may have led some officials to put the school’s reputation above protecting young victims, the hefty, and somewhat controversial, fine levied by the National Collegiate Athletic Association holds out the prospect of providing more immediate help in the fight against child sex abuse. The NCAA wants to direct the millions to an endowment that supports child-abuse treatment and prevention efforts. That’s a laudable goal, but there have been calls for Penn State to appeal the fine — something, fortunately, the university appears unlikely to do.

As it happens, prosecutors in Pennsylvania have a proposal that could ease any criticism — but not by reducing the fine by one dollar. Rather, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has called for steering a good portion of the endowment to fighting abuse in the state where Sandusky committed his crimes.

It would do this by expanding child-advocacy centers across the state, where victims can be counseled and then interviewed by police without being retraumatized. Philadelphia has had to overcome years-long funding and logistics issues to set up one of these centers, so the addition of such aid for centers across Pennsylvania cannot come soon enough for victims.