Former FBI director Louis Freeh made it clear Thursday that Penn State University had botched how it handled reports that onetime football coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused boys, saying top officials concealed critical information. But the failings, according to the report, went beyond the shortcomings of top administrators to the very culture and importance of big-time sports at a prominent university.
At a news conference after releasing his critical findings, Freeh described investigators’ interviews with janitors at the school who knew of questionable incidents by Sandusky but didn’t take any action because they were afraid of the power of the football program and its prominent coaching staff.
“If that was the culture at the bottom,” Freeh said at the televised news conference, “imagine what the culture was at the top.”
After eight months of investigations, interviews with 430 witnesses and the examination of more than 3.5 million emails and other documents, the much-anticipated 267-page report makes it clear that Freeh and his team saw problems with how top officials, including legendary head football coach Joe Paterno, acted. But it was also the need to protect the university from bad press that led former officials, including President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz to try to keep the scandal an internal matter, investigators concluded.
“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.
University officials had two opportunities to deal with Sandusky and reports of his abuse. In 1998, police were investigating a complaint that Sandusky had showered with a boy in the school’s football facility. The report notes that at least one official thought the incident could open “a Pandora’s box.”
The complaint did not lead to criminal charges, and Spanier, Paterno, Curley and Schultz took no immediate action to limit Sandusky’s access to the campus, to which he took disadvantaged boys on field trips. It was those trips, along with sports-related gifts and special favors, that prosecutors in Sandusky’s trial alleged was part of Sandusky’s grooming process of potential victims. The former coach is now in jail awaiting sentencing on 45 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.
In 2001, officials had to deal with another report about Sandusky. Former graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno of sexual abuse in the showers by Sandusky on a boy of 10 to 12 years old. Paterno discussed the incident with Curley, Schultz and Spanier. According to the report’s findings, it was decided to again keep the incident an internal matter.
“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 most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”
Some of the most powerful men at the school “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 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.”
The report’s fallout will affect the legacy of Paterno, who died of cancer in January. He and Spanier were forced out of their positions by university trustees after Sandusky was arrested in the fall. The other officials are awaiting trial on a variety of charges including perjury and that they failed to inform authorities of the child abuse.
“We have a great deal of respect for Mr. Paterno,” Freeh said at the news conference. “He has a terrific legacy, a great legacy. We’re not singling him out, but put him in the same category with four other people. ... But the facts are the facts,” Freeh said, citing the emails and notes of conversations. “There is a whole bunch of evidence for the reasonable conclusion that he was an integral part of the active decision to conceal.”
The report was also critical of the Penn State football program, saying 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 found no evidence linking Sandusky’s 1999 retirement to the 1998 police investigation. The report disclosed that Spanier also approved a lump-sum payment of $168,000 to Sandusky, which some of the other officials said may have been unprecedented.
It was the university trustees who asked for the Freeh investigation, and they’re expected to comment on the findings later today.
The NCAA, the governing body for collegiate sports, said Penn State now must address questions concerning institutional control and ethics policies as outlined in an earlier letter.
“Penn State’s response to the letter will inform our next steps, including whether or not to take further action,” Bob Williams, the NCAA’s vice president of communications, said in a prepared statement. “We expect Penn State’s continued cooperation in our examination of these issues.”
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 Freeh report noted that Penn State’s “awareness and interest” in Clery Act compliance was “significantly lacking.”
“This is a wake-up call for every university with a major sports program,” Daniel Filler, professor at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said in an email. “I imagine that every (competent) General Counsel at a school with Big Sports will be reading this closely.
“What you see in the Freeh Report is a university that keeps the board out of the loop about important issues, fails to comply properly with the federal Clery Act, and more generally treats the athletic program as a free standing, separately managed entity not responsive to University concerns or oversights. And I strongly suspect this is basically the same arrangement at almost every school that has a football team that’s been ranked in the Top 25 in the past couple of decades,” he wrote.