Commentary

Freeh report details devastating

If public accepts findings, Penn State leaders' legacies and reputations altered

Updated: July 12, 2012, 8:45 PM ET
By Don Van Natta Jr. | ESPN.com

One night during the autumn of 2000, a janitor cleaning Penn State's Lasch Football Building observed Jerry Sandusky, then 56 years old, in the showers with a 12-year-old boy pinned to the wall. The janitor saw Sandusky performing oral sex on the boy. Later that night, another janitor saw Sandusky and the same boy in the showers, and later watched the two leaving the locker room holding hands.

The janitors' supervisor asked the men if they wanted to report what they had witnessed to the police.

"No," one janitor said, "they'll get rid of all of us."

"I know [football coach Joe] Paterno has so much power," the other janitor recalled about the incident, "if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone." He predicted that Penn State's leaders would do everything possible to protect the school's vaunted football program.

"Football runs this university," the janitor said.

The janitors did nothing. And in a damning 267-page report released Thursday, former FBI director Louis Freeh concluded that the four most powerful men at Penn State, across a period of 14 years, also did nothing; rather, Freeh said, they actually took part in a cover-up of the Sandusky allegations.

The consequences were horrific.

Paterno, Penn State president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz "failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade." This conspiracy of silence enabled Sandusky, convicted last month of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys, to continue to prey on his victims, often in the Lasch Building -- steps from Paterno's office -- or on trips to bowl games, the Freeh report concluded.

During an extraordinary 45-minute news conference Thursday, Freeh said the janitors' fear of speaking up about a young boy's abuse is a telling indictment about the all-powerful culture of Penn State's football program. "They were afraid to take on the football program," Freeh said. "The university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States. If that is the culture on the bottom, God help the culture on the top."

Page after page, damning conclusion after damning conclusion, the Freeh report lays out the story of a stunning and systemic failure of leadership. The evidence contained in the report, including emails from 1998 and 2001 when Spanier, Paterno, Schultz and Curley concealed the Sandusky allegations, is devastating to the reputations and legacies of each.

"In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity," the report states, "the most powerful leaders at the university -- Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley -- repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse."

In 2001, when then-assistant coach Mike McQueary reported an assault in the shower that he had witnessed to Paterno, the coach told him, "You did what you had to do. It's my job now to figure out what we want to do."

Paterno's decade-old words -- It's my job now to figure out what we want to do -- hang over the entire Freeh Group's report, indicating that the powerful coach and the university's leaders each had an array of choices to make about what to do about Sandusky, going back 14 years. Almost always, they chose to say or do little or nothing about Sandusky, seemingly more concerned about the "humane" response to Sandusky, as Spanier said in a February 2001 email, rather than how the longtime defensive coach's actions might be affecting children.

Freeh also charges that Paterno, Curley, McQueary, Spanier and Schultz failed to comply with the federal Clery Act by not reporting the 2001 incident to university police.

"Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State," Freeh said.

The Freeh report does not stop laying blame there. It is harshly critical of Penn State's board of trustees, which hired the Freeh Group in November 2011 after firing Paterno and Spanier. The report blames the trustees for a failure of governance that "did not create a 'tone at the top' environment wherein Sandusky and other senior university officials believed they were accountable to it."

Freeh said that there was so little discussion about the ongoing Sandusky investigation in 2011 among the trustees that "most board members did not know about [Sandusky's arrest] until they read it in the newspaper." Freeh called it "a failure of governance, a failure of oversight that has to be a contributing cause."

Further, Freeh noted that in November, Spanier and then-university counsel Cynthia Baldwin opposed an independent investigation of the Sandusky allegations: "Baldwin emailed Spanier that, '[i]f we do this, we will never get rid of this group in some shape or form. The Board will then think that they should have such a group.' Spanier agreed."

Asked whether trustees should resign, Freeh declined to answer but added that reporters should pose that question to the trustees, who are meeting Thursday and Friday in Scranton, Pa. The board came under withering criticism for its firing of Paterno last November without giving the coach a chance to be heard. The Freeh Group had initially intended to release a draft report to the board but decided against it after concerns that it would raise questions about its credibility.

The Freeh investigators did not interview Paterno, who died in January at age 85 after a brief bout with lung cancer, or Curley and Schultz, who await trial on perjury charges. Last Friday, the investigators interviewed Spanier, who insisted that he was never informed in 2001 that the allegations against Sandusky were sexual in nature. A Pennsylvania grand jury is believed to be considering an indictment on Spanier and others. The U.S. Attorney's Office is also investigating aspects of the Sandusky-Penn State case.

In a statement released Thursday, Paterno's family said, "Joe Paterno wasn't perfect. He made mistakes, and he regretted them. To think, however, that he would have protected Jerry Sandusky to avoid bad publicity is simply not realistic. We have said from the beginning that Joe Paterno did not know Jerry Sandusky was a child predator. Moreover, Joe Paterno never interfered with any investigation."

The report is most damaging in the emails and notes that investigators discovered last March about the way Paterno, Spanier, Curley and Schultz managed allegations of Sandusky child abuse in 1998 and 2001.

Since January, the Paterno family has insisted that the coach knew nothing about the May 1998 child abuse allegation brought by the mother of an 11-year-old boy who had showered with Sandusky in the Lasch Building. When Paterno testified before the grand jury in January 2011, he said he had no knowledge of the 1998 allegation, though he said he vaguely recalled something about "a rumor." In his January 2012 interview with The Washington Post, Paterno also "insisted he was completely unaware" of the 1998 police investigation. "Nobody knew about it," he told the Post.

This is a lie. In two emails and other evidence in Freeh's report, Paterno showed keen interest in how the criminal investigation of Sandusky in 1998 was being monitored and handled by Curley, Schultz and Spanier.

In confidential May 4, 1998, notes about the allegation, Schultz writes of Sandusky: "Behavior -- at best inappropriate @ worst sexual improprieties" and "At min  Poor Judgment." Schultz also wonders, "Is this opening of Pandora's box?" and "other children?"

It's a question that, in hindsight, is painfully prescient. But in 1998, that possibility was not aggressively pursued by the leaders of Penn State. In fact, it is striking how little is said in any of the emails about Sandusky's alleged victims.

In follow-up emails in May 1998, Schultz says he has "touched base with" Paterno about the alleged incident. And days later, Curley emails Schultz: "Anything new in this department? Coach is anxious to know where it stands."

A local district attorney declined to bring charges against Sandusky for the alleged 1998 incident, but the Freeh Group condemned Paterno, Spanier, Curley and Schultz for their inaction. At a meeting that month of the board of trustees, Spanier did not notify trustees about the sexual abuse allegation against Sandusky or the police investigation, the report states.

When Sandusky began talking retirement the following year, Paterno gave Sandusky "the option to continue to coach as long as he was the coach," according to a Curley email in the summer of 1999.

But Sandusky chose to retire with a lucrative pay package, including an unprecedented lump sum of $168,000, and an agreement for the university to "work collaboratively" with Sandusky on his charity that he had founded for troubled youth, The Second Mile. He also was granted "emeritus" status, including free lifetime use of locker room facilities. According to the Freeh report, he was allowed "to retire in 1999, not as a suspected child predator, but as a valued member of the Penn State football legacy, with future 'visibility' at Penn State and ways 'to continue to work with young people through Penn State,' essentially granting him license to bring boys to campus facilities for 'grooming' as targets for his assaults."

The Freeh Group found no link between the 1998 criminal investigation and Sandusky's retirement in 1999. In December of that year, Sandusky brought a boy to the Alamo Bowl in Texas and assaulted the boy at the team hotel, the report states.

When it became public in the 2011 grand jury presentment in the Sandusky case, the February 2001 shower incident reported by McQueary tied the Sandusky allegations to Penn State and also transformed them into a Paterno scandal. Freeh's report offered new, damning information about how the incident was handled by Penn State officials.

Freeh investigators found that Schultz weighed the 2001 allegation against the history of the 1998 incident. The report states "Unless [Sandusky] confesses to having a problem, [Curley] will indicate we need to have [the state Department of Public Welfare] review the matter as an independent agency concerned with child welfare."

Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State.The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.

-- Louis Freeh

Spanier, Schultz and Curley would meet to figure out an action plan on Feb. 25, 2001. The options, according to Schultz's notes: tell the chair of the board of Second Mile, report it to the Pennsylvania Department of Child Welfare, and tell Sandusky "to avoid bringing children alone into Lasch Bldg." Two days later, Curley reported he had changed his mind about the action plan "after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe [Paterno] yesterday."

The decision was made to see how "cooperative" Sandusky would be when confronted. If he were to be cooperative, they would work with Sandusky to inform Second Mile and not alert authorities. If he were not cooperative, Curley said then, "we don't have a choice and will inform" the authorities.

Spanier agreed to this approach, saying, "The only downside for us is if the message isn't 'heard' and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it. But that can be assessed down the road. The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed."

The report makes clear that the consequences of the inaction in 1998 and again in 2001 allowed Sandusky to sexually assault four more boys in the subsequent years, some in the Lasch Building. Sandusky had access to the facilities until November of last year and attended Paterno's last game on Oct. 29, 2011.

"He was frequently at the Lasch Building working out, showing up at campus events that Penn State supported," Freeh said Thursday. "He was showering with young boys, staying in dormitories. ... There are more red flags than you could count, over a long period of time."

If the public accepts the findings of Freeh's investigators, the consequences for Penn State will be significant and costly on many levels. Lawsuits from victims against the university, severe penalties resulting from an ongoing NCAA investigation, and continuing strife between alumni and current university leadership seem almost certain.

The legacy of Paterno, whose "success with honor" mantra helped him win a record 409 games, also hangs in the balance. It is true, as Paterno supporters say, that the coach is not here to defend himself.

In a statement on Thursday, Paterno's family said, "It can be argued that Joe Paterno should have gone further. He should have pushed his superiors to see that they were doing their jobs. We accept this criticism."

Paterno did much for Penn State, its student-athletes and its reputation. But the Freeh Group's crushing report ensures that he will now be remembered more for what he didn't do about Sandusky.

Don Van Natta Jr. | email

Senior writer, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com

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