PHILADELPHIA — Driven in part by the powerful culture of its football program, the top leaders of Penn State University agreed to conceal child sexual abuse allegations against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for more than a decade, choosing to preserve the university’s reputation over protecting the victims of a pedophile, according to a damning report by special investigators.
In a scandal that has roiled the world of big-time college athletics, Penn State’s most senior officials — including legendary head football coach Joe Paterno — showed “total disregard” for the abuse victims, concealed crucial information and failed at least twice to act on sexual assault accusations against one of their own because they feared the consequences of bad publicity on the university, the 267-page report by former FBI director Louis Freeh said.
The “sad and sobering” findings, Freeh said, show that leaders stuck to what was called “the Penn State Way,” of excessively promoting athletics without fear or oversight or reprisal from an ineffective Board of Trustees.
University trustees accepted responsibility Thursday for the scandal, admitting that a lack of oversight and a failure to ask the right questions contributed to the ongoing abuse of boys, some assaulted by Sandusky in university showers.
“The Penn State Board of Trustees failed in our obligation to provide proper oversight,” board member Kenneth Frazier said. “Our hearts remain heavy and we are deeply ashamed.”
Sandusky, 68, was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years — following a three-week trial in which victims gave graphic testimony of assaults that included rape and oral sex by the former coach.
The scandal sparked protests at one point in support of Paterno, who was forced out — along with university president Graham Spanier — after Sandusky’s arrest. Paterno died of lung cancer in January before he could be interviewed by Freeh’s staff. The school’s actions have been examined by state and federal investigators as well as college sports officials who question whether the university has lived up to NCAA ethics standards. The report, commissioned by the university, will probably be cited in civil suits promised by Sandusky’s victims.
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 report made clear in scathing descriptions that Freeh and his team saw serious problems with the actions of top officials, including Paterno. But the need to protect the university led the former officials — including 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.
Criminal trials are pending against Schultz and Curley, accused of lying to the grand jury and not reporting suspected child abuse. Pennsylvania Atty. Gen. Linda Kelly acknowledged the Freeh investigation Thursday but would not say if more charges would be pursued as a result.
The school’s problems were sharply etched in an incident in 2000 when a janitor witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the showers of the football training facility, Freeh said. The witness described the scene to his fellow workers and they decided they couldn’t tell anyone because they were afraid for their jobs.
“They knew who Sandusky was and they said, ‘We can’t report this because we’ll get fired,’ ” Freeh said. The janitors “were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States.
“If that’s the culture at the bottom, God help the culture at the top,” Freeh said at a news conference.
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.”
That 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.
In 2001, officials had to deal with another allegation about Sandusky. Former graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary told Paterno that he witnessed sexual activity between Sandusky and a boy of 10 to 12 years old in a university shower. Paterno discussed the incident with Curley, Schultz and Spanier. According to the report’s findings, the leaders again decided to 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.”
Those men “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.”
One factor that propelled the case into the national headlines was the prominence of football at Penn State and the standing of Paterno, a Hall of Fame coach.
“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 added, 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.”
Paterno’s family defended the coach.
“We appreciate the effort that was put into this investigation,” the family said in a statement. “The issue we have with some of the conclusions is that they represent a judgment on motives and intentions and we think this is impossible. 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 was 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.” 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.
Muskal reported from Los Angeles, Lash from Allentown, Pa. Peter Hall of the Allentown Morning Call contributed to this story from Philadelphia.