After reading the Freeh report, there’s no getting around it: Joe Paterno fucked up.

I apologize for the bad language, but there’s no other way to describe it. Besides, little kids aren’t reading this, and if they do, I think it will be far more damaging to their psyche to learn that powerful and influential men could care so little for their welfare or fail them so badly.

Then again, that’s a tough lesson they’ll learn one day. You get older, your parents die, you see that people will hurt children, people will ignore evil, and you discover your heroes aren’t so heroic.

That last bit is certainly a take-away for me regarding Paterno, who as I wrote late last year, I grew up idolizing, went to his football camps, and met briefly on a few occasions.

This column isn’t aimed at taking shots at Paterno. His detractors have been chomping at the bit for years and there have been times in the media frenzy these past few months when you might have thought Paterno was the one accused of abusing kids, rather than his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky.

I’m not going to join them. My view of him changed last year when it became clear he didn’t go to the police in 2001 when he was notified of an incident in the locker room showers. The Freeh report, despite what some have claimed, doesn’t have a smoking gun in that respect. It’s a thorough and well-done report, but it doesn’t break much new ground unless you weren’t paying attention last year.

The report only makes more clear what was already evident in 2011: People stood by while a serial child molester used Penn State’s campus as a ground to lure his prey.

Paterno was fired, got sick, expressed regret and died. He’s gone to meet his maker. All the good he did has been overshadowed now by his awful mistake in failing to do something about Sandusky. History will judge him thoroughly in time, and only time will tell how much of the good he did will be remembered.

What blows my mind, and there is a lesson for us all in this, is that in his moment of truth, he failed to do the right thing.

Paterno wasn’t alone in failing to do the right thing. He was joined by many others, including the other three stooges: Gary Schultz, Tim Curley and Graham Spanier.

They had their moment of truth. They were confronted with an ugly situation: credible allegations of child abuse against one of their assistant coaches. They could turn him over to the cops or they could do nothing.

They choked. They did nothing. They had concerns, but they rationalized doing nothing.

So more kids got abused. Young, defenseless kids were sexually assaulted by a serial child rapist. All because they didn’t go to the cops.

It makes no sense morally or logically. They were alerted to an allegation against Sandusky in 1998. According to the Freeh report, the police, the Centre County District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Public Welfare all investigated Sandusky in 1998. Charges were never filed. You can ask why charges weren’t filed, and you can ask why Paterno, Spanier, Curley and Schultz didn’t do anything to remove Sandusky from campus then. But in fairness to them, the authorities investigated and they didn’t charge Sandusky.

OK.

What’s not OK is that they did nothing in 2001 when similar allegations were brought to their attention by former Penn State quarterback Mike McQueary, then a graduate assistant with the program.

The Freeh report makes plainly clear that it was inexcusable those four men failed to report Sandusky immediately to the police after McQueary told them what he saw in light of the fact that they had already been alerted something was wrong in 1998.

Why? It makes no sense. If they had reported Sandusky in 2001, they had cover. He was no longer a coach then, and if the 1998 incident came up, they could legitimately claim the authorities had looked into it and hadn’t charged him. Beyond the obvious moral reasons, why wouldn’t they have thrown Sandusky immediately under the bus in 2001 in order to protect themselves and the school?

Could it really be because they feared publicity and the impact on the football program? Seriously?

No institution, no matter how large or revered, is worth the price of one child.

The shrieking harpies have said this is all because of football. It has nothing to do with football.

It has everything to do with institutions being insular, operating in secrecy, and individuals being more concerned about the well-being of institutions than the well-being of children. It’s about people with poor judgment being unchallenged in their authority.

It’s about people sitting back and rationalizing evil and making excuses for doing nothing while bad things happen to kids.

If you insist football is the problem, then I would point you in the direction of the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church and the “kids-for-cash” scandal in Luzerne County. They had nothing to do with football and they shared many of the same attributes I listed above as the Penn State scandal.

What the Freeh report really does is illustrate how those four men rationalized doing nothing about Sandusky. In the emails and notes you get a sense of dread, that they feared there was potentially something horrific going on, and that they were concerned what would happen if the situation exploded in their faces.

And yet time and again, they found a way to convince themselves that the best thing to do was nothing. As the report notes, there was talk of referring Sandusky to the authorities in 2001, but ultimately they satisfied themselves that going to the leadership of Sandusky’s charity, The Second Mile, was the right thing to do.

Sadly, as we’ve seen time and again in Pennsylvania, evil was met by a small, pathetic act by those in power.

We are a country that was founded by a bunch of radicals who thumbed their noses at the most powerful empire in the world. Yet now we routinely shrink from calling out large institutions.

We once held the powerful as accountable as the common man. Now we treat the powerful with kid gloves at every turn.

We once knew how to call out evil. Now we stick our heads in the sand and hope it will pass us by.

The Freeh report has shed more light on the Penn State scandal, and that’s a good thing. But unless we learn from it, it will be like other past scandals, like the Catholic Church scandal and the Luzerne scandal and the others that came before them, and, as my managing editor likes to say, it will be explained away as the fault of “the bad men,” rather than the result of something darker and more insidious: our willingness to let institutions operate in secret, beyond the reach of the law, and our unwillingness to confront evil and corruption.

Penn State’s day of reckoning is coming. With lawyers like Tom Kline, Matt Casey and Slade McLaughlin poised to sue the school, and with facts this damning and a story this ugly, don’t be surprised if a jury comes back with a $100 million verdict. I’m not kidding.

But that won’t solve all our problems.

Perhaps a better, more individual way to confront the problem is to do the following: Take your son or daughter or niece or nephew or grandchild, and tell them the story of McQueary seeing the little boy being raped in the shower by Sandusky. Then tell them that the people in power didn’t try to save the boy, that they didn’t even try to find out his name or who he was.

Can you imagine telling a child that? I can’t. Do you want to live in a place where something like that is possible? I don’t.

Maybe the only way to get everyone conditioned to do the right thing and confront evil is to get them to understand that evil can touch something precious to them as well. •

Hank Grezlak is the editor-in-chief of The Legal Intelligencer. He may be contacted at 215-557-2486 or by email at hgrezlak@alm.com