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So they did the right thing. Belatedly.

You might say that is better than failing to do the right thing period, but it comes as meager comfort to those who have watched the Penn State scandal unfold and wondered how a moral imperative as obvious as a gorilla in church could have been missed by so many. It is all well and good that the campus was reported to be chastened and numb at Saturday’s football game, that there were a moment of silence and expressions of remorse for victims of pedophilia. But none of that erases, nor even addresses, the most pressing question:

Why did it take so long?

There seems to be some confusion over what one should do if, as allegedly happened at Penn State, one becomes aware of a pedophile sexually assaulting a child, so let us clear that up. Here, step-by-step, is what you do:

(1) Make the pedophile stop, preferably by putting him — or her — forcibly against a wall.

(2) Resisting the urge to put said pedophile through said wall, make sure the victim is OK.

(3) Call the police.

If the rules require you to notify a superior first, allow said superior a reasonable amount of time to call police. Fifteen seconds is a reasonable amount of time.

None of this happened at Penn State. Not in 1998 when a young boy’s mother told officials her son had been inappropriately touched in a shower by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Not in 2000 when a janitor says he saw Sandusky performing oral sex on a boy in the shower. Not in 2002 when a grad student alerted the school’s iconic football coach, Joe Paterno, that he had seen Sandusky rape a 10-year-old in the shower.

Sandusky denies these accusations. In a surreal interview with NBC’s Bob Costas, he admitted to “horseplay” and to showering with boys, but insisted he’s done nothing wrong.

Prosecutors say otherwise. Sandusky faces a 40-count indictment and new alleged victims are coming forward. Two school officials were also indicted. Last week, the school fired Paterno, the face of its football program for nearly 50 years, for not doing more to stop the abuse. Students reacted by rioting, tearing down lampposts, fighting with police, overturning a news van.

“Of course we’re going to riot,” Paul Howard, a 24-year-old student, told The New York Times. “What do they expect when they tell us at 10 o’clock that they fired our football coach?”

You wish such moral obtuseness was rare. It seems instead general.

And you wonder what it is that allows people to so easily forget what should be most important. Like Catholic Church officials who failed to stop pedophile priests, Penn State seems to consider its well-being the matter of pre-eminent concern.

But what matters here is not the school’s reputation.

It is not “JoePa’s” legacy.

It’s the children, stupid.

As a society we talk a great game about how important young people are to us. Yet how often do we confront moments of blinkered morality — from the child welfare agency that fails to protect the child’s welfare to the pedophile who gets a pass — that argue otherwise?

It is all our jobs to protect all our children — period. And yes, it was good that Penn State stood up for Sandusky’s alleged victims Saturday. But sometimes, doing the right thing belatedly is the same as not doing it at all.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

(c) 2011 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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