PHILADELPHIA -- Joe Paterno and other top Penn State officials hushed up child sex abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky more than a decade ago for fear of bad publicity, allowing Sandusky to prey on other youngsters, according to a scathing internal report issued Thursday on the scandal.
"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," said Louis Freeh, the former director of the FBI who was hired by university trustees to look into what has become one of sports' biggest scandals. "The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized."
After an eight-month inquiry, Freeh's firm produced a 267-page report that concluded that Hall of Fame coach Paterno, 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."
Freeh called the officials' disregard for child victims "callous and shocking."
"In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university -- Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley -- repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse," the report said.
Paterno "was an integral part of this active decision to conceal," Freeh said at a news conference.
Asked directly if Paterno's firing last fall was justified, Freeh answered, "Yes."
Sandusky is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of 45 criminal counts for abusing 10 boys. He faces a minimum of 60 years in prison. On Thursday, his attorney filed a notice of appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, saying the judge in the trial issued a protective order that required the defense team to disclose confidential work product.
The Penn State scandal led to the ouster of Paterno and Spanier. Curley and Schultz are awaiting trial on charges accusing them of lying to a grand jury and failing to report abuse. They have pleaded not guilty.
Asked whether the officials' actions amounted to a crime such as conspiracy or obstruction, Freeh said that would be up to a grand jury.
School leaders "empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access" to campus and via his affiliation with the football program, the report said. The access, the report states, "provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims."
Sexual abuse might have been prevented if university officials had banned Sandusky from bringing children onto campus after a 1998 inquiry, the report said. Despite their knowledge of the police probe into Sandusky showering with a boy in a football locker room, Spanier, Paterno, Curley and Schultz took no action to limit his access to campus, the report said.
The May 1998 complaint by a woman whose son came home with wet hair after showering with Sandusky didn't result in charges at the time. The report says Schultz was worried the matter could be opening "Pandora's box."
Then, in 2001, after a member of Paterno's staff saw Sandusky in a campus shower with a boy, officials did bar him from bringing children to campus but decided not to report him to child welfare authorities.
"There's more red flags here than you could count over a long period of time," Freeh said.
In a statement, Paterno's family said the longtime coach made mistakes that he acknowledged but "never interfered with any investigation" and was fooled by Sandusky.
"The idea that any sane, responsible adult would knowingly cover up for a child predator is impossible to accept," the family said. "The far more realistic conclusion is that many people didn't fully understand what was happening and underestimated or misinterpreted events. Sandusky was a great deceiver. He fooled everyone."
In a television interview with ESPN correspondent Tom Rinaldi on Thursday, Paterno's son, Jay, said Freeh's investigation provided "no new facts but just some new interpretations of things."
"They took some of the facts that they had and where they didn't have facts to support some of the conclusions, they came to what they call reasonable conclusions," Jay Paterno said. "There's some things here that still have to be resolved with sworn testimony, which is a much higher bar and a much higher burden of proof than an investigation like this."
Defense lawyer Caroline Roberto, who represents Curley, classified the Freeh report as "mere opinions drawn from limited sources."
"The Freeh Group was limited in its investigation by lack of subpoena power and the reluctance of many people to be interviewed," Roberto said in a statement. "Therefore, the Freeh report has limited impact on the defense of Tim Curley.
"At the request of the Pennsylvania Attorney General, the Freeh Group did not interview critical witnesses such as Mike McQueary and others. The result is a lopsided document that leaves the majority of the story untold.
Thus, the conclusions reached in the Freeh report are based on an incomplete record."
Spanier's lawyers issued a statement saying that Freeh's conclusion that the president actively concealed wrongdoing "is simply not supported by the facts or by the report itself." They said Spanier never concealed anything from law enforcement and never was contacted by police about Sandusky's criminal acts until last year.
Karen Peetz, chairwoman of Penn State's board of trustees, said the panel believes Paterno's "61 years of excellent service to the university is now marred" by the scandal and how he handled the accusations.
Peetz also said the board "accepts full responsibility for the failures that occurred," but that no board members would be stepping down.
Another trustee, Kenneth Frazier, added: "Our hearts remain heavy and we are deeply ashamed.
"You have to measure every human by the good they've done, and the bad they've done. We have to take some time ... and distance before we start thinking about how we think about Joe Paterno's entire life and entire body of work."
Paterno's legacy already had come into serious question prior to the Freeh report. Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, a contemporary and friend who is second in major college football wins behind Paterno (409 to 377), believes Thursday's report has permanently tarnished Paterno's image.
"Here's a guy who makes one terrible mistake, one of the most terrible in college athletics," Bowden said during a phone interview with the Patriot-News. "I'm afraid that will be his legacy. When people talk about Joe in the future, it will all come back to this."
Freeh said Sandusky's conduct was in part a result of the school's lack of transparency, which stemmed from a "failure of governance" on the part of officials and the board of trustees. He said the collective inaction and mindset at the top of the university trickled all the way down to a school janitor who was afraid for his job and opted to not report seeing sex abuse in a school locker room in 2000.
The report also singled out the revered Penn State football program -- one built on the motto "success with honor" -- for criticism. It says Paterno and university leaders allowed Sandusky 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," allowing him to groom victims.
Investigators, however, found no evidence linking Sandusky's $168,000 retirement package in 1999 to the '98 police investigation. Freeh called the payout unprecedented but said there was no evidence it was an attempt to buy Sandusky's silence.
Sandusky's trial last month included gut-wrenching testimony from eight young men who said he abused them as boys, sometimes on campus, and included testimony that showed he used his prestige as a university celebrity to manipulate the children.
By contrast, Freeh's team focused on Penn State and what its employees did -- or did not do -- to protect children.
More than 400 current or former school employees were interviewed since November, including nearly everyone associated with the football program under Paterno. The Hall of Fame coach died of lung cancer in January at age 85, without telling Freeh's team his account of what happened.
Some of the report's most damning evidence against Paterno consists of handwritten notes and emails that portray him as being involved with a decision by the school officials not to tell child welfare authorities about the 2001 encounter.
Spanier, Schultz and Curley drew up a plan that called for reporting Sandusky to the state Department of Child Welfare. But Curley later said in an email that he changed his mind about the plan "after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe."
Spanier concurred but noted "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."
The emails also show Paterno closely followed the 1998 allegation.
Michael Boni, a lawyer for a boy known as Victim 1, called the report a "serious indictment against Penn State's culture and environment of protecting at all costs the football program."
He added: "Nothing is shocking anymore in this case ... but the fact that the highest levels of the school made a conscious decision to cover up what Sandusky had done, it comes close. It is shocking."
In State College, Pa., on Thursday morning, some students and alumni gathered at the Penn State student center to watch the release of the Freeh report on live television, Philly.com reported.
However, according to the website, just as the report was to be unveiled at 9 a.m., all the televisions went blank, then switched to a public access channel showing an interview about the state budget. Attempts to change it back initially failed.
Mary Krupa, an 18-year-old Penn State freshman who grew up in State College, said the conclusion that the school's highest officials were derelict in protecting children didn't shake her love of the town or the school.
"The actions of five or six people don't reflect on the hundreds of thousands" of students and faculty who make up the Penn State community, she said while walking through the student union building on campus.
The Freeh report had an impact far away from State College, as well.
Nike decided to take Paterno's name off its child development center at company headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.
Nike Inc. chairman Phil Knight, who defended Paterno during a speech at the late coach's memorial service in January, said in a statement, "According to the investigation, it appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences. I missed that Joe missed it, and I am extremely saddened on this day. My love for Joe and his family remains."
With the report now complete, the NCAA said Penn State now must address four key questions concerning "institutional control and ethics policies," as outlined in a letter sent to the school last fall.
"Penn State's response to the letter will inform our next steps, including whether or not to take further action," said Bob Williams, the NCAA's vice president of communications. "We expect Penn State's continued cooperation in our examination of these issues."
Michael Buckner, an attorney who specializes in NCAA cases, told ESPN.com's Joe Schad that the findings in the Freeh report don't necessarily violate NCAA rules.
"It documented a lack of institutional control (as it is generally defined and understood) at Penn State, but not the lack of control as defined in the NCAA Manual or articulated by the Committee on Infractions," Buckner said. "Naturally, (NCAA president Mark) Emmert could disregard this fact and pursue an unchartered and unsupported course of action. However, I would let the legal system (criminal and civil) do its job."
The U.S. Department of Education is examining whether the school violated the Clery Act, which requires reporting of certain crimes on campus, including ones of a sexual nature. The report said Penn State's "awareness and interest" in Clery Act compliance was "significantly lacking."
Only one form used to report such crimes was completed on campus from 2007 through 2011, according to the Freeh findings. And no record exists of Paterno, Curley or assistant coach Mike McQueary reporting that McQueary saw Sandusky in a shower with a boy in 2001, as they would be obligated to do under the Clery Act.
As of last November, Penn State's policies for Clery compliance were still in draft form and had not been implemented, the report found.
The U.S. Department of Education declined to comment on Freeh's report.
The Big Ten said Thursday it is continuing to monitor the Penn State investigation and is prepared to review the Freeh report.
"As we have said from the beginning, the conference will reserve judgment until all information surrounding the various proceedings is made available," the conference said in a statement. "Various federal, state and other investigations, including the grand jury investigation, are still ongoing, certain criminal trials have yet to begin, and key principals have yet to testify.
"The unprecedented nature of these circumstances requires a prudent, thoughtful and patient review. Until the record is complete and has been thoroughly reviewed by our Presidents and Chancellors, we do not anticipate commenting further."
Freeh said he regretted the damage the findings would do to Paterno's "terrific legacy," but there was no attempt to pin the blame on the late coach.
"What my report says is what the evidence and the facts show," he said.
Jay Paterno told Rinaldi that the Freeh report shouldn't tarnish the Paterno name.
"I think (our family's) name means the same thing (today) that it's always meant," Paterno said. "In the long term, as history judges Joe Paterno and what the name Paterno means ... the things that have happened will not change that over time."
Information from ESPN.com's Joe Schad and Tom Rinaldi and The Associated Press was used in this report.