AS FAR AS I'm concerned, child rapists should be executed. (So should cop killers, mothers who drown their infants and blame the baby blues, and people who sever the spinal cords of viable third-term fetuses.)

And for those who engage in cover-ups, nothing less than a life sentence can satisfy society's outrage, whether the person wears a Roman collar or wields a clipboard. Of course, the legal system takes a different view from outraged citizens'; otherwise lynching would be standard operating procedure.

So I understand why people are devastated at the possibility that their hero, Joe Paterno, wouldn't have done everything in his power to bring a child-abuser to justice. And if that were truly the case, I can only say that JoePa's lucky that he's one month shy of 85, because no jury in Pennsylvania would send this old man to jail. Of course, that means that he's also closer to his own personal Judgment Day, and God would probably mete out a stiffer sentence than the good people of the Keystone State.

Still, Paterno didn't commit a crime, and the indictment handed down this week makes that perfectly clear. Neither did Sandusky nor the others, until the allegations are proved in a court of law, something that a lot of peopole are willing to ignore.

So until it's proved that the legend of Happy Valley knew what was going on in the shadows and showers and made a concerted effort to ignore it, we should all just back off. I'm tired of the sustained campaign to assassinate the character of anyone who gets sucked into a child-abuse scandal, even those accused of covering up.

Look no further than the nearest pew to see where that's taken us. The Catholic Church has been accused of protecting child molesters so often and so indiscriminately that any time I hear that a grand jury is about to hand down an indictment, the only question in my mind is: "Which archdiocese?" And that's completely unfair, because many of the accusations, decades old, have never been proved. If they ever are, the perpetrators deserve to suffer both here and in the eternal flames of Hell. But, of course, our current "enlightened" society doesn't need legal proof to start igniting the torches and wielding the pitchforks.

Whether it's a former altar boy, a female cadet, an amateur stripper or a former employee of the National Restaurant Association, the usual presumptions of innocence fly out the window. It might be helpful to look at two such cases, one that occurred in Happy Valley and one that happened a few hundered miles to the south.

Back in 2007, a member of the Nittany Lions squad was charged with raping a Penn State coed. Austin Scott was ultimately acquitted, and, of course, nothing happened to the woman who accused him. Scott, on the other hand, was kicked off the football team by Paterno. That's because the coach has a very strict sense of what is moral and ethical, which gives us some idea about whether he would have knowingly ignored evidence of sexual molestation.

Then we have the much more notorious case of the Duke lacrosse players who were victims of a conspiracy between bigoted faculty members, a district attorney who was worse than the crminals he prosecuted and a drug-addicted stripper. We all know how that one ended - with a finding that the three defendants were "actually innocent." Only it took a whole year for them to emerge from that nightmare, and their reputations were never fully restored.

Which is why I'm seething with anger that Penn State decided to fire Paterno before letting the legal system wind its way through the normal processes. This is a man who gave unerringly of himself to the college, who built Penn State and who didn't deserve to be kicked to the side of the road for appearances sake.

Was it too much to ask for a little introspection before trashing his legacy?

It's not a simple case of blind loyalty, nor does it mean that we're ignoring the plight of the abused kids. Clearly, there is evidence that heinous crimes were committed. But, why is it only when the accuser is a child or a woman that the usual presumption of "innocent until proven guilty" is exchanged for "hang 'em high"?

And the fact that the board of trustees didn't even have the decency to tell the greatest coach of the last half-century, in person, that he was being fired is a disgusting example of cowardice.

Pliny once wrote, "It is generally much more shameful to lose a good reputation than never to have acquired it."

JoePa definitely acquired it. But the shame is ours.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. Email