Leadership & Governance

A Powerful President Sought First to Protect His University's Reputation

Tim Shaffer, LANDOV

In e-mails in 1998 and 2001, Graham B. Spanier seemed to take steps to quiet talk of Jerry Sandusky's child sex abuse. Now he may face criminal liability.
July 12, 2012

[Updated, 12:11 p.m., 7/13/2012]

Graham B. Spanier, who often seemed beyond reproach during his 16-year reign as Pennsylvania State University's president, ultimately used his power to try to protect the reputation of the institution and its storied football program at the expense of young children's safety.

That was the portrait painted by a scathing independent investigation released Thursday. The exhaustive 267-page report is the product of an eight-month probe led by Louis J. Freeh, the former FBI director. Mr. Freeh was commissioned by Penn State trustees to investigate the circumstances surrounding the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, a retired Nittany Lions defensive coordinator, who was convicted last month of 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving 10 victims over 15 years.

If Mr. Spanier and his colleagues at the very top of Penn State's administration had fulfilled their basic moral and legal obligations, they might have saved some of Mr. Sandusky's victims, the report states. Instead, a new trove of evidence suggests, Mr. Spanier repeatedly took steps that, knowingly or not, enabled a child predator to use the campus as a hunting ground.

Timothy M. Curley, Penn State's athletic director at the time, and Gary C. Schultz, its former interim senior vice president for finance and business, have been charged with lying to a grand jury and with failing to report the allegations of suspected child abuse to proper authorities when they learned of them. Both have denied wrongdoing. Thus far Mr. Spanier has not faced criminal liability. That may soon change.

The report provides strong evidence that Mr. Spanier knew more about the allegations made against Mr. Sandusky than he has previously let on, raising the specter of perjury charges, said John M. Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert on criminal law in Pennsylvania.

Specifically, the report demonstrates that Mr. Spanier was kept abreast of a 1998 investigation of a report that Mr. Sandusky had showered with a child on the campus. Mr. Spanier denied any prior knowledge of the case when he spoke to the grand jury last year, the report states, but e-mails show otherwise.

On May 5, 1998, a day after the showering incident was reported to the university police, Mr. Spanier received an e-mail from Mr. Curley in which the athletic director states that he has “touched base with coach” Joe Paterno. Based on the timing of the e-mail, which was sent within a series of exchanges about the investigation, the report surmises that the contact with Mr. Paterno concerned the allegations made against Mr. Sandusky.

Mr. Spanier told investigators he did not recall the May 5 e-mail, which he described as a "vague reference with no individual named." Even so, other exchanges demonstrate that Mr. Spanier remained in the loop as the investigation developed.

On May 6, 1998, Mr. Spanier was copied on another e-mail in which Mr. Schultz explained to Mr. Curley that “the Public Welfare people will interview the individual,” presumably the victim or his mother, the following day.

On June 9, 1998, Mr. Spanier received another e-mail from Mr. Schultz that stated: "The matter has been appropriately investigated, and I hope it is now behind us."

While there is no evidence Mr. Spanier or others interfered with the investigation, they were “kept informed” throughout the process, the report states.

No charges were ever filed, and Mr. Spanier and his fellow administrators never even spoke with Mr. Sandusky about the allegations, the report states.

'Humane' and 'Reasonable'

The e-mails Mr. Spanier received demonstrate his direct knowledge of events the former president denied ever having heard about, Mr. Burkoff said, and it strains credibility to think Mr. Spanier could have forgotten something so significant. "It certainly appears to me that an actual indictment of Spanier would appear now to be all but inevitable," the law professor said.

In a written statement on Thursday, Mr. Spanier's lawyers said he had concealed nothing criminal because he never knew anything criminal had been alleged. "At no time in his 16 years as president of Penn State was Dr. Spanier told of any incident involving Jerry Sandusky that described child abuse, sexual misconduct, or criminality of any nature."

Mr. Spanier has said he was never told Mr. Sandusky was spotted sexually assaulting a boy in a locker-room shower in 2001, and only heard the then-retired coach had been "horsing around" with a youth. The report demonstrates, however, that Mr. Spanier approved of Mr. Curley's decision to not report the 2001 incident to authorities, in possible violation of state and federal laws. Instead, Mr. Curley would report the allegations to the Second Mile, a charity for underprivileged youth where Mr. Sandusky groomed his victims.

Mr. Spanier actually applauded Mr. Curley for agreeing to speak directly with Mr. Sandusky.

"Tim: This approach is acceptable to me," Mr. Spanier wrote in an e-mail to Mr. Curley on February 27, 2001, at 10:18 p.m. "It requires you to go a step further and means that your conversation will be all the more difficult, but I admire your willingness to do that and I am supportive.

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

The e-mail, which was leaked to CNN before the report's publication, has been roundly criticized for appearing to suggest that it would be "humane" to bury the allegations. Mr. Spanier told investigators, however, that he only meant to imply that it was "humane" for Mr. Curley to agree to accompany Mr. Sandusky to a meeting with the Second Mile and to offer Mr. Sandusky counseling.

Jules Epstein, an associate professor at the Widener University School of Law, in Delaware, said Mr. Spanier could be vulnerable to criminal charges beyond perjury if he is found to have knowingly protected a child predator.

Just last month, Msgr. William J. Lynn, a senior official in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, became the first high-ranking official in the Roman Catholic Church to be convicted of a crime for covering up sexual abuse in the church. "If I were prosecutor," Mr. Epstein said, "I might ask if Spanier knew and covered up, and that caused future children to be harmed." If that's the case, Mr. Epstein said, Mr. Spanier "could be prosecuted the same way as Monsignor Lynn."

Mr. Spanier's decision to offer Mr. Sandusky "emeritus" status upon his retirement, in 1999, directly contributed to the former coach's ability to use the campus as a lure for children and a stage for molestation, the report says. Mr. Sandusky lacked the qualifications to become an emeritus faculty member, but Mr. Spanier used his rarely employed authority to grant the status anyway. The emeritus status was part of a package of benefits afforded to Mr. Sandusky, who received an unprecedented $168,000 lump-sum retirement package.

The package Mr. Spanier approved allowed Mr. Sandusky to retire, "not as a suspected child predator, but as a valued member of the Penn State football legacy," the report says, and essentially granted him "license to bring boys to campus facilities for 'grooming' as targets for assaults."

Board Left in Dark

The Freeh report provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Penn State's administration, which has historically operated with minimal public oversight because of a quasi-private "state related" status that exempts the university from open-records laws. Equally notable is the window the report provides into Mr. Spanier's relationship with the Board of Trustees, whose members he appeared determined to keep minimally informed, even as the sex-abuse scandal broke in public.

Mr. Spanier and his staff did not inform the board of the 1998 allegations made against Mr. Sandusky, and the president initially expressed uncertainty about whether he could even discuss his grand-jury testimony with trustees. When Mr. Curley and Mr. ­Schultz were charged, Mr. Spanier told his staff he would tell the board "nothing more than what we said publicly."

"One trustee said that Spanier may have been 'left to float too freely by himself' because he felt he could fix anything," the report states. "Other trustees expressed that Spanier 'filtered' issues in the best light of a desired outcome; showed trustees 'rainbows' but not 'rusty nails'; and 'scripted' or 'baked' issues, leaving no room to debate issues or confront Spanier even when disagreement arose."

Mr. Spanier and Cynthia Baldwin, who announced in January she would resign as Penn State's general counsel, were also particularly concerned that the board would acquire oversight powers in the crisis that could never be revoked. They both agreed that opening an independent investigation, as one trustee suggested during a November 5, 2011, conference call, would set bad precedent.

If "we do this, we will never get rid of this group in some shape or form," Ms. Baldwin wrote to Mr. Spanier. "The board will then think that they should have such a group."

Throughout the report, Mr. Spanier is portrayed as treating the investigation with nonchalance, suggesting to one trustee that the university itself was "on the periphery of this."

In a news conference on Thursday, trustees tried to strike a balance between accepting blame for their lax oversight and for trusting Mr. Spanier too much, while also stressing that the president had been evasive.

"In retrospect, we wished we had pressed upon someone we had complete trust in," said Kenneth C. Frazier, a board member and chair of the committee that retained Mr. Freeh's firm. "If someone wanted to share what was going on, they could have shared what was going on."

Karen B. Peetz, chairwoman of the board, acknowledged, however, that the board could have done more. "This is the part we're most disturbed about or sorry about: We should have had our antennae up. We should have been risk managers in a more active way."

Dan Berrett contributed to this article.