STATE COLLEGE, Penn. (Reuters) - Until a few days ago, Jerry Sandusky’s face smiled down on students from a mural in downtown State College, the home of Penn State University, where football players and coaches are treated like royalty.
On Wednesday, the creator of the mural painted over Sandusky. The former assistant football coach was charged a few days earlier with sexually abusing eight boys over more than a decade.
“I got an email yesterday from one of the victim’s mothers saying simply, ‘Michael, can you please take Sandusky off the mural,'” said Michael Pilato, a local painter who created the “Inspiration” mural in 2001.
It will not be so easy to wipe out the stain on Penn State’s reputation from the alleged abuse and what critics see as a cover-up by university officials who were told that Sandusky was seen raping a young boy in a shower in 2002.
Sandusky, who played football at Penn State and then coached for 32 years at the school, has denied the charges and has been released on bail.
The case has drawn comparisons to the child abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church, whose top officials are also accused of covering up child abuse over decades.
In this tight-knit town where the university is everything, Sandusky was known as a church-going family man and a philanthropist. “Jerry was just held in very high regard. It’s definitely a shock to hear something like this. This has kind of blindsided everyone in town. He was the definition of Penn State,” said Nick Savereno, who grew up in the university town, attended Penn State and now owns a sandwich shop near campus.
That the alleged abuse continued even after university officials were alerted to specific allegations has raised questions about the power and influence of the football program and its coaches -- especially Joe Paterno, one of the most revered figures in American sports.
The football program at Penn State was so sacrosanct as to be almost untouchable. “We just had this empire all by itself, reporting to nobody,” said one member of the university’s board of trustees.
Pennsylvania State University used to be a sleepy engineering school, but it was turned into a national powerhouse with the money raised by its marquee football program. In 2008, the last year for which data is available, Penn State was one of the 20 largest recipients of federal research dollars in the country. It has fostered what is now the world’s largest dues-paying alumni association.
Now, the university is in turmoil. When the Sandusky news broke last weekend, at least two board members found out from television news rather than from the university. That probably helped seal the fate of university president Graham Spanier, said the trustee.
Spanier was fired on Wednesday, along with Paterno, the 84-year-old coach who was known simply as JoePa and who had won more college football games than any coach in history.
In a statement earlier this week, Paterno said: “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Spanier said after he was dismissed: “I was stunned and outraged to learn that any predatory act might have occurred in a university facility or by someone associated with the university.”
Two other officials, former athletic director Tim Curley and former finance official Gary Schultz, have been charged with failing to report an incident of abuse and lying to the grand jury, which detailed the allegations against Sandusky in a 23-page report (Available on the Pennsylvania attorney general's website here: here)
Lawyers for Curley and Schultz have denied the charges.
The grand jury report, and dozens of Reuters interviews with people in State College and connected to the case, indicate there were key moments when the alleged abuse was suspected or witnessed - and might have been stopped.
During the period documented in the report, from 1994 to 2008, the first occasion authorities were alerted to possible abuse was in 1998.
According to the grand jury report, “Victim 6,” then 11 years old, told his mother he had showered with Sandusky in a locker room on the Penn State campus, and the coach had lathered the boy’s body and squeezed him in a bear hug.
The boy’s mother complained to campus police, who launched an investigation, during which they discovered there was a second boy who had a similar experience.
A detective from the campus police and an investigator from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare met with Sandusky, who admitted to the shower. They extracted a promise from the coach that he would not do it again.
The investigation ended when the Center County District Attorney at the time, Ray Gricar, decided not to press charges. Some seven years later, while still in office, Gricar went missing under mysterious circumstances; his body was never found. There is no indication of any connection to the child abuse case, but his disappearance means he can provide no answers as to why the case was dropped.
A year after the investigation, in 1999, Sandusky retired as Penn State’s defensive coordinator. At his last home game he received a standing ovation from nearly 100,000 fans crammed into the Nittany Lions’ stadium. But at a farewell gala held for Sandusky at around that time, several attendees said they were struck by Paterno’s absence.
Requests for comment from Paterno, directed through his son, were not answered..