Penn State probe puts Paterno at heart of sex abuse cover-up

PHILADELPHIA – Joe Paterno and other Penn State officials buried child sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky more than a decade ago to avoid bad publicity, according to a report Thursday that exposed a “culture of reverence” for the football program and portrayed the Hall of Fame coach as more deeply involved in the scandal than previously thought.

The report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh said a cover-up by Paterno, then-university President Graham Spanier and two other Penn State administrators allowed Sandusky to prey on other boys for years.

Freeh, who was hired by the university’s trustees to investigate, called the officials’ behavior “callous and shocking.”

“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.”

The findings of the $6.5 million, eight-month investigation could further stain Paterno’s reputation. The revered coach who ran what was considered one of the cleanest programs in sports died of lung cancer in January at age 85, months after he was fired by the trustees.

Freeh said while he regretted the damage the findings would do to Paterno’s “terrific legacy,” the coach “was an integral part of this active decision to conceal,” and his firing was justified.

Asked whether the actions of the four officials amounted to a crime such as conspiracy or obstruction, Freeh said that would be a matter for a grand jury to decide.

In a statement, Paterno’s family strongly denied he protected Sandusky for fear of bad publicity, saying: “The idea that any sane, responsible adult would knowingly cover up for a child predator is impossible to accept. 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.”

Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and retired senior vice president Gary Schultz are awaiting trial on charges of failing to report abuse and lying to a grand jury. The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office still is investigating the scandal, and others could be charged.

Sandusky, a former member of Paterno’s coaching staff, is awaiting sentencing after being convicted last month of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.

Freeh and his team interviewed more than 430 people and examined more than 3.5 million emails, handwritten notes and other documents. Paterno died before he could be interviewed but testified before a grand jury.

The investigation focused largely on the university officials’ decision not to go to child welfare authorities in 2001 after a coaching assistant told Paterno he had seen Sandusky sexually abusing a boy in the locker room showers.

Paterno and others said among other things that they misunderstood the allegations, that they did the best they could and that this was the “humane” way to handle the matter.

But the Freeh report said: “It is more reasonable to conclude that, 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 from authorities, the university’s board of trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large.”

Other factors contributed to the decision to keep quiet, the report found, including “a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.”

The report said trustees failed to exercise oversight and didn’t inquire deeply into the matter when they learned of it.

Spanier’s lawyers Thursday denied he took part in a cover-up and said Freeh’s conclusion “is simply not supported by the facts.” Spanier was ousted along with Paterno four days after Sandusky’s arrest last November.

Attorneys for Curley and Schultz said their clients would prove their innocence in court.

Freeh said officials had opportunities in 1998 and 2001 to step in.

In 1998, police investigated after a woman complained that her son had showered with Sandusky. The investigation did not result in charges. But the emails show Paterno clearly followed the 1998 case, Freeh said. University officials took no action at the time to limit Sandusky’s access to campus.

After the 2001 report of Sandusky sexually abusing a boy in the showers, university officials barred him from bringing children to campus but didn’t report him to child welfare authorities.

Some of the most damning evidence against Paterno consists of handwritten notes and emails that portray him as having been involved in that decision.

According to the report, Spanier, Schultz and Curley drew up an “action plan” that called for reporting Sandusky to the state Department of Public Welfare. But Curley later said in an email he changed his mind about the plan “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe.” Instead, Curley proposed to offer Sandusky “professional help.”

In an email, Spanier agreed with that course 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.”

Karen Peetz, chairwoman of the trustees, said the board “accepts full responsibility for the failures that occurred.” She said the panel believes Paterno’s “61 years of excellent service to the university is now marred” by the scandal.

The report chronicled a culture of silence that extended from the president down to janitors in the football building. Even before 1998, football staff members and coaches regularly saw Sandusky showering with boys but never told their superiors about it.

In 2000, after a janitor saw Sandusky performing oral sex on a boy in the team shower, he told co-workers. None went to police for fear of losing their jobs.

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