If there's one thing that's truly awful about death, it's the unfinished business we leave behind.
I recall one Lake County legislator's quote from a news story I wrote for WKRS one Sunday morning a few years back. From several news sources, it was reported that her final words were, "I wish I could have done more."
In the wake of Joe Paterno's death from the complications of lung cancer, I can picture him at the Pearly Gates, at the hand of St. Peter, the keeper of the Gates of Heaven, echoing, as he had said the same in several interviews, including Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post:
"In hindsight, I wish I could have done more."
Even through his lung cancer battle, he was still fighting to rehabilitate his reputation.
Today and tomorrow, as Fox News reported, Penn State will be crowded with mourners as they walk past his casket, lying in state at the campus spiritual center before being buried in a private ceremony on Thursday.
My heart goes out to his beloved wife, Sue and their family. It's a tragic end to a life that, up until six months ago, had been celebrated, even revered, in most sports circles. Paterno's fall from grace has been so complete, when I offered a supportive "RIP, JoePa," on my Facebook page, many of my Facebook friends suggested that Paterno likely is burning in hell for his sins.
None of us are God, and therefore, we don't know where in the universe JoePa is resting. And I do believe in the power of confession and forgiveness that is provided under the umbrella of faith.
If not, we're all going to hell!
But enough about religion and forgiveness. What the world knew about Joe Paterno before the Jerry Sandusky scandal was that he was a God-fearing Catholic, a devoted family man, and the winningest coach in college football of all time.
Yes, Joe should have done more, as he allowed. He should have gone directly to the authorities himself. But as a man firmly set in the past, I will speculate that JoePa really didn't know about sexual abuse of boys, as he indicated. And I did believe Paterno when he said he had never heard of "rape and a man," to the Washington Post. I also believe that he was genuinely confused by what the assistant told him and didn't know what to do.
Why? He grew up in an era that sucked up pain and abuse. He grew up Catholic, where elders and superiors were to be respected and obeyed. And not questioned. To that end, he reported to his superiors what he knew. Then, nothing.
It was in that vacuum that JoePa should have taken the initiative and gone to the authorities himself. But it's very likely he had no idea that he should have done that. That wasn't done in 1950's households, Catholic households, or in football families.
For the 60 years he worked for Penn State, though, I believe there is a way to save his legacy for the future. It's just up to his family to put such a rehabilitation effort in place. And it involves becoming pro-active advocates for victims of child abuse.
I would suggest to the Paterno family that they come out as advocates for the victims of abuse. Paterno already has a statue and a building named for him. How about another building--a"Paterno Center for Healing" where the following could take place:
- In connection with the spiritual center, the Paterno Center could employ counselors where both students and community could come for private counseling.
- On-campus and off-campus abuse can be confidentially reported and investigated.
- The counselors could work in tandem with community agencies to ensure that each victim and family member would have a complete contiuum of care.
- That this center would hold annual seminars on abuse awareness for coaches of all sports.
By becoming advocates for healing abuse, and for the victims who are saved from shame and pain, Paterno's legacy can be returned to something resembling its former luster.
As I said in my original story after the scandal broke, I know something about child abuse. I've worked in the field for 15 years. I write grant proposals, though, and am not a counselor. But I can say that the mission of all child welfare services is "to help and protect children." And across the Chicago metropolitan area, 24 hours a day, agencies receive calls...from teachers, friends, police officers, and abuse victims themselves.
When authorities are involved...children can be protected and lives can move forward. While the type of violence inflicted on children varies greatly, the common denominator among the calls made to nonprofit agencies, to the National Runaway Hotline, to DCFS, to hospitals and other caring and safe places is that someone cared enough, was daring enough, and had the moral cajones and conviction to make a call to authorities no matter what the cost to themselves. Most of these calls are made anonymously. That said, when a child is in danger, why would protecting your safety be so important? Children are our future. Anything that is done to them now is reflected in the kind of adults they become. And that determines our country's future.
Intervention, as any social services professional will tell you, is the key to stopping destructive cycles of abuse. For example, had Sandusky been reported, he could have been brought tohavior justice. By now, he would have been a registered sex offender.
Let this Center for Healing be a leader in teaching coaches and park district employees across the country what is considered "good touch" and "bad touch." If Sandusky considered what he termed "horseplay" to be normal, what other kinds of behavior have our children endured? That is why each school, and every community, needs to step up and enforce laws regarding behavior around children.
There are stringent rules surrounding abusive and exploitative behavior throughout the United States that govern educational facilities, nonprofit agencies, park distict sports teams, scouting organizations, and other places where children and adults meet. Background checks are mandatory, as are fingerprinting, for all those working with children, at least in Illinois.
Yet, many slip from the cracks, because abuse goes unreported. For example, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has an abuse hotline number on its website. Though it may be too late for the victims of Jerry Sandusky, here's the number for future reference: Call 1-800-932-0313 to Report Child Abuse
The Paterno Center for Healing could become a standard-bearer in the recognition, prevention and treatment of abuse. I call on the Paterno family and the new officials of Penn State to put this plan, or one like it, into action. And slowly, the devastating shame that will certainly have long-lasting repercussions for a once-proud institution will be lifted. JoePa's statue will once again stand for honor and pride in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
But in the most important legacy of all, our children can be protected and safe from abuse.Parents will not have to fear what happens to their children in sports camps or in the classroom. There is no greater legacy we can provide to our children than for them to be safe, healthy, self-confident, and able to reach their potential as individuals.