Paterno soon saw his charmed life fall apart. He was fired, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he died about three months later, with his reputation in tatters. The university to which he had donated millions of dollars even removed a statue of him outside the football stadium.
It all happened because Joe Paterno didn't know what to do with information that apparently confounded him; he simply could not grasp that one of his long-time assistant coaches had been spotted abusing a boy in a university shower. But Paterno surely did grasp that revealing such information could be explosive--and it would damage the lives of people he had known and trusted for years.
That probably is why Joe Paterno took a passive approach. And his failure to act decisively and aggressively, when faced with information about a stomach-churning crime, is why many Americans have vilified a once beloved figure throughout much of 2012.
I now have a slight taste for how Joe Paterno must have felt. That's because I've received extensive information about apparent child sexual abuse as part of my coverage of the Rollins v. Rollins divorce case. Two sources within the family have confirmed that a North Carolina social-services investigation in the 1990s centered on a citizen complaint about a possible abusive relationship between Ted Rollins and his stepson. One source has provided details--the discovery, for example, of soiled towels that were the apparent byproduct of anal sex--that suggest something was terribly wrong in the Rollins household.
The issue particularly resonates because Ted Rollins now is CEO of Campus Crest Communities, a Charlotte-based company that completed a $380-million Wall Street IPO in late 2010 and has student-housing projects either completed or in development at 36 universities across the country. Like Jerry Sandusky, Rollins works in a field that revolves around young people--and yet, powerful evidence indicates Ted Rollins has treated young people in an abusive fashion.
Like Joe Paterno, I'm feeling queasy about the whole matter. That's partly because people I respect have asked me not to report on the subject, out of concern for damage it might cause to the family--especially the alleged victim who now is a young adult.
One of the people who has asked me to look away is Sarah Rollins, Ted Rollins' oldest daughter and the alleged victim's half sister. A 2012 graduate of Mountain Brook High School and now a freshman at University of the South, Sarah Rollins is concerned that reporting on such a sensitive matter would cause an irreparable schism in her family. (See posts here and here.)
We conclude today our series of posts about my conversation with Sarah Rollins. (See videos at the end of this post.) I have moved forward with reporting on the child sexual abuse investigation, but I have not taken that step lightly.
My actions, to a great extent, have been driven by lessons from the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State--especially Joe Paterno's role in it. The vast majority of Americans seem to have reached the conclusion that Paterno should have resisted his urge to look the other way--that he should have directly reported the information about Sandusky, consequences be damned.
Regular readers probably will not be surprised to learn that I'm not a big believer in going along with the crowd. A book called The Wisdom of Crowds spent weeks on best-seller lists in 2004-05, but I believe America's crowds often get things horribly wrong. How else can you explain George W. Bush spending eight years in the White House?
In this case, however, I think the crowds have it right. Victims of child sexual abuse are defenseless, and if adults continue to be squeamish and silent on the issue, the number of victims only will grow. Joe Paterno should have realized that. He should have done more.
As much as I appreciate Sarah Rollins' concerns--and I admire her for contacting me out of concern for her brother--I decided that I was not going to repeat Joe Paterno's mistake. I was going to report this story in a straightforward fashion.
The reporting process is ongoing, but technically speaking, my responsibility doesn't end there. Like Joe Paterno, I am obligated to report what I know to the proper authorities. That's not just my sense of right and wrong speaking; it's the law.
Many Americans probably have never heard of something called "misprision of a felony." (That first word, by the way, is pronounced mis-PRI-zhen; or at least, I think that's right.) It's covered under 18 U.S. Code 4, which states:
Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony cognizable by a court of the United States, conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
I certainly have information about the possible commission of a felony, and North Carolina has no statute of limitations on child sexual abuse, so that would not bar an investigation or prosecution. The law states that it covers knowledge of the actual commission of a felony. Does the information I have go beyond the possible to the "actual commission" of a felony? Does the term "cognizable by a court of the United States" mean the law applies only to federal issues? If the information I possessed involved acts that took place in more than one state, would that make them federal issues?
I don't have the answers to those questions. But I am informed by the experiences of Joe Paterno at Penn State. And it tells me that citizens are expected to act aggressively with information about the possible abuse of children.
You can check out the last two parts of my conversation with Sarah Rollins below.