Graham B. Spanier, the former president of Pennsylvania State University who was once one of higher education's highest fliers, was charged on Thursday with conspiring to cover up child-abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, the former Nittany Lions football coach who was convicted in June on 45 counts of molestation.
State prosecutors say Mr. Spanier, who has devoted his professional life to studying the welfare of children, and two other top Penn State officials repeatedly ignored signs that Mr. Sandusky was abusing boys in Penn State's football showers, and instead gave the former coach unfettered access to university facilities in disregard of the safety of children.
In addition to conspiracy, prosecutors charged Mr. Spanier with failing to report a crime, obstructing justice, perjury, and endangering the welfare of children. Of the eight counts he faces, five are third-degree felonies, each punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Two of Mr. Spanier's subordinates who were previously charged with lying to a grand jury—Gary C. Schultz, the former senior vice president for finance and business, and Timothy M. Curley, the athletic director on administrative leave—were also charged on Thursday with criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and endangering the welfare of children.
"This was not a mistake by these men, this was not an oversight," Linda Kelly, the Pennsylvania attorney general, said at a news conference. "This was a conspiracy of silence by top officials to actively conceal the truth."
Ms. Kelly's language bore a striking resemblance to that contained in a scathing university-commissioned report released in July by investigators led by Louis J. Freeh, a former FBI director. The report asserted that Mr. Spanier, Mr. Schultz, and Mr. Curley had displayed a "total disregard for the safety and welfare" of children and had hidden crucial facts from the authorities about the alleged abuse.
In August, Mr. Spanier's lawyers tried to blow holes in that report, saying that their client had never been told that any of the allegations against Mr. Sandusky were of a sexual nature. In a written statement released on Thursday, the lawyers denied the attorney general's charges, calling them a "politically motivated frame-up of an innocent man." Mr. Schultz and Mr. Curley have also repeatedly asserted their innocence.
The case hinges on allegations brought to university administrators in 1998 and 2001. Mr. Spanier has denied knowing about a 1998 incident involving Mr. Sandusky and a young boy in the showers, although e-mails show he was apprised of the situation.
He has also said he had scant recollection of a 2001 shower incident involving a football graduate assistant who saw Mr. Sandusky sexually abusing a different boy. In that instance, Mr. Spanier has said he believed that the graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, had seen only "horseplaying around" between Mr. Sandusky and the boy. But the president's response suggests he may have known the allegations to be more serious, according to a grand-jury report released on Thursday.
Following that incident, Mr. Curley suggested that university officials not report Mr. Sandusky to the authorities, and instead urge the coach to seek counseling and stop bringing children onto university property.
Mr. Spanier responded to that suggestion in a 2001 e-mail, saying: "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 approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed."
'Conceal and Cover Up'
In an interview with The New Yorker in August, Mr. Spanier defended that response, saying that he had meant only to convey that it was "humane" of Mr. Curley to want to meet with Mr. Sandusky.
"I think what many people wanted to read into it was that it was humane for us not to turn him in for being a known child predator," Mr. Spanier told the magazine. "But I never, ever heard anything about child abuse or sexual abuse or my antennae raised up enough to even suspect that."
Prosecutors aren't buying that defense, believing that the evidence instead suggests that all three former administrators knew enough about both incidents to have done more.
According to the grand-jury report, the university's police chief who investigated the 1998 incident believed that it was a "big deal" and that top university officials were "extremely interested and concerned" about the matter.
"There was no question that it was recognized that this investigation had the potential to significantly damage and embarrass Penn State," the grand-jury report says.
Further, Mr. Schultz kept a secret file on Mr. Sandusky and met with Penn State's general counsel at the time to discuss a "report of suspected child abuse" by Mr. Sandusky in 2001.
And the e-mails among Mr. Spanier, Mr. Schultz, and Mr. Curley in 2001 "make clear that they are discussing an event that involves the abuse of a child," the grand-jury document says.
Mr. Schultz never told the university's police chief about that suspected 2001 crime, the grand-jury report says. Had administrators done so, the police chief told prosecutors, the police probably would have re-examined the 1998 incident and might have put an earlier stop to Mr. Sandusky's crimes. (He abused at least five boys after the 2001 incident, the grand-jury report says.)
'A Colossal Failure'
Prosecutors were kept in the dark about those and other details until last November, when Mr. Spanier was fired as president and the independent investigators began their work.
The grand-jury report assailed Penn State's top administrators. "The continued cover-up of this incident and the ongoing failure to report placed every minor male child who would come into contact with Sandusky in the future in grave jeopardy of being abused," it says. "The actual harm realized by this wanton failure is staggering."
In response to the attorney general's charges, Penn State officials placed Mr. Spanier, 64, on leave from his faculty post. He is scheduled to be arraigned next week.
Penn State's legal problems will continue to make it difficult for the university to move forward, said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.
"It is very possible the legal wheels will be turning for a decade in this case," he said, "if you include all the criminal and civil cases that have been brought or will be brought."
Regardless of how the legal process plays out, one verdict can already be rendered, Mr. Hartle said.
"There's no question this was a failure of management, it was a failure of leadership, it was a failure of relations with the board," he said. "This was just a colossal failure every step of the way."
Jack Stripling contributed to this article.