Penn State's Culture of Reverence Led to 'Total Disregard' for Children's Safety

Matt Rourke, AP Images

An inquiry led by Louis J. Freeh, a former FBI director, concluded that Joe Paterno and other top officials at Penn State hushed up child-sexual-abuse allegations for fear of bad publicity.
July 12, 2012

A reverence for football was largely to blame for a series of missteps by top Pennsylvania State University administrators in failing to report repeated allegations of child sex abuse by Jerry Sandusky, according to an independent report released on Thursday.

Two Penn State officials—Graham B. Spanier, the university's former president, and Joe Paterno, the revered coach—took the brunt of criticism in the report. They and other top leaders displayed a "total disregard for the safety and welfare" of children, the report says, and hid critical facts from authorities about the alleged abuses.

The report, the culmination of an eight-month investigation by Louis J. Freeh, the former FBI director commissioned by the university's Board of Trustees, also describes repeated breakdowns in board governance and a failure of university officials to carry out provisions of the Clery Act, the federal law requiring the reporting of crimes like the ones Mr. Sandusky committed. He was convicted last month on 45 counts of molesting children.

In a televised news conference in Philadelphia, Mr. Freeh stopped short of describing a cover-up by university officials, instead saying that senior leaders had "repeatedly concealed facts." But various e-mails and documents suggest that Mr. Spanier and Mr. Paterno, along with Gary C. Schultz, the former senior vice president for finance and business, and Timothy M. Curley, the athletic director now on administrative leave, knew for years about the sexual nature of accusations against Mr. Sandusky and kept them under wraps.

"The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized," Mr. Freeh said. Those four administrators "never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky's victims until after Sandusky's arrest."

The findings of the 267-page report could be seen as evidence of a changing university climate in which the corporate brand—and a blind faith in big-time athletics—is often seen as more important than the educational mission.

"The university completely abdicated its role as an educational institution committed to the public good in order to protect its corporate brand, image, and market value," said Michael D. Giardina, an assistant professor of sport management and associate director of the Center for Physical Cultural Studies at Florida State University. "The outrage over this case is certainly justified, and we should encourage greater degrees of transparency and accountability in our institutions.

"At the same time," he continued, "we shouldn't overlook or forget that the corporate university of today makes ethically suspect decisions all the time."

Bad Decisions

Top university officials first had concerns about Mr. Sandusky's behavior around children in May 1998, according to the report, after the mother of an 11-year-old boy reported that the coach had showered with her son in the Lasch football building. The campus police began an investigation, which Mr. Schultz was immediately informed of.

In a confidential note, Mr. Schultz wrote, "Behavior—at best inappropriate @ worst sexual improprieties." He also noted, "Is this the opening of Pandora's box?" and "Other children?"

The head of the police decided against pressing charges against the coach, saying, "I can justify that decision because of the lack of clear evidence of a crime." Mr. Curley then notified Mr. Spanier and Mr. Schultz that he had "touched base with" Mr. Paterno about the incident, and Mr. Sandusky continued to coach.

Days later, when the university's trustees met, Mr. Spanier did not notify them of the continuing investigation, a disturbing pattern he repeated during a 2001 investigation into the coach, the report says.

"By not promptly and fully advising the Board of Trustees about the 1998 and 2001 child-sexual-abuse allegations against Sandusky and the subsequent grand-jury investigation of him, Spanier failed in his duties as president," the report concludes. "The board also failed in its duties to oversee the president and senior university officials in 1998 and 2001 by not inquiring about important university matters and by not creating an environment where senior university officials felt accountable."

Reporting problems were not contained to corner offices. Several staff members and coaches regularly observed Mr. Sandusky showering with young boys in the university's Lasch building before 1998, but none of them reported the behavior to their superiors. In 2000 a temporary janitor observed Mr. Sandusky pinning a boy against a wall in the Lasch building and performing oral sex on him. The janitor told a fellow worker what he had seen, stating that he had "fought in the [Korean] War, ... seen people with their guts blowed out, arms dismembered. ... I just witnessed something in there I'll never forget."

When one of the janitors suggested reporting the problem, the other said, "No, they'll get rid of all of us."

That fear of taking on football was pervasive at the university, Mr. Freeh said at the news conference. "They knew who Sandusky was," he said of the janitors. "They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States. If that's the culture on the bottom, God help the culture at the top."

A Change of Mind

During the 2001 investigation, Mr. Schultz consulted with Wendell V. Courtney, the university's outside counsel, "re reporting of suspected child abuse," according to documents Mr. Freeh's investigators found.

Mr. Spanier, Mr. Schultz, and Mr. Curley then met to discuss the situation. Mr. Schultz's confidential notes indicated that he spoke with Mr. Curley, reviewed the history of the 1998 incident, and agreed that Mr. Curley would discuss the matter with Mr. Paterno.

Mr. Schultz made notes suggesting that the university should report Mr. Sandusky to the state's Department of Public Welfare, saying: "Unless he confesses to having a problem, [Curley] will indicate we need to have DPW review the matter as an independent agency concerned w child welfare."

The three administrators devised a plan, reflected in Mr. Schultz's notes, that would include telling the chair of the board of the Second Mile, the charity Mr. Sandusky started and where he preyed on children, and asking the coach to avoid bringing children alone into the Lasch building.

But after Mr. Curley later spoke with Mr. Paterno, the athletic director e-mailed Mr. Spanier and Mr. Schultz, saying he had changed his mind about the plan. Instead, Mr. Curley proposed telling Mr. Sandusky that "we feel there is a problem" and offering him "professional help."

"This approach is acceptable to me," Mr. Spanier wrote in an e-mail to Mr. Schultz and Mr. Curley. "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.

"But that can be assessed down the road," he continued. "The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed."

Those decisions, the report says, illustrate a "striking lack of empathy for child-abuse victims by the most senior leaders of the university."

Mr. Spanier, who was interviewed by Mr. Freeh's staff in early July, told the investigators that he had never heard a report from anyone that Mr. Sandusky was engaged in any sexual abuse of children. Both Mr. Schultz and Mr. Curley, who face charges of lying to a grand jury and failing to report child abuse, have also denied knowing that Mr. Sandusky's behavior was of a sexual nature.

The report paints a different picture, stating that top officials abdicated their responsibilities in the interest of avoiding bad publicity.

"It is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University," including Mr. Spanier, Mr. Schultz, Mr. Paterno, and Mr. Curley, "repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large," the report says. "Although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by them for Sandusky's victims."

The revelations could lead to an indictment of Mr. Spanier, one legal expert told The Chronicle.

"The Freeh report is a scathing indictment of Graham Spanier and others who fostered a culture at Penn State that valued football over possible child sexual-assault victims," said John M. Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert on criminal law in Pennsylvania. "It certainly appears to me that an actual indictment of Spanier would appear now to be all but inevitable."

Sense of Relief

The report, which was released three weeks after Mr. Sandusky's conviction, left some members of the Penn State community feeling bruised.

"This is very painful for those who love Penn State, and this is personally embarrassing for me," said Scott Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science who was the university's faculty athletics representative from 2000 to 2010. "But it also brings a sense of relief. Waiting and not knowing is, in some ways, harder than getting the story—as difficult as it may be."

People with strong connections to Mr. Paterno felt let down—not so much by the late coach, but by an investigative process that they feel treated him unfairly. Brian Masella, a member of the group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, who played for Mr. Paterno in the 1970s, generally defended the coach and said he did not believe that all the facts had come out.

"When you're a second or third party to information and you did not have that firsthand knowledge, how are you going to accuse and report somebody?" he said.

Matthew Casey, a lawyer for several of the boys who were molested by Mr. Sandusky, said the document gives clues about how liable the university might be for the criminal activity that took place there.

"It was even worse than the leaked information might have suggested," Mr. Casey said. "Words like 'concealment,' words like 'shocking,' used by a former federal judge who was hired by Penn State—those are bad words for any institution that now has to assess their own liability."

Jeffrey P. Fritz, who represents another victim of Mr. Sandusky, said he and his client would look at the report and consider their options, including the possibility of pursuing civil action against "anyone who's responsible for what happened."

"There is no question that these weren't mistakes," Mr. Fritz said. "These were crimes which occurred, and I would anticipate that the attorney general's office would be bringing further charges."

Fallout from the scandal has affected Chad Seifried at a personal and professional level. He grew up in State College, Pa., and played high-school basketball in the early 1990s with some of Mr. Sandusky's sons, even spending time in the coach's house. He later played basketball for the Nittany Lions while Mr. Curley was the athletic director, and got to know Mr. Spanier.

Now an assistant professor and the graduate coordinator for sport management at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, Mr. Seifried is co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, due out early next year, that is focused on the problems at Penn State.

Following the release of the Freeh report, his first concern was to take stock of what the people at Penn State think about themselves. "We need to keep reminding ourselves as Penn Staters of all the good things we've done in light of all the things that have come out," he said. "But if we had things wrong, we need to look at how to fix those things."

"When you don't have oversight on people either because they created a long legacy of making decisions at the university, or you relax because you think they'll continue to do the right thing," he said, "there's some danger in that."

A Turning Point?

Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel University, sat in the courtroom during the Sandusky trial and is considering writing a book on the news media's role in the scandal.

She is concerned that the university will try to distance itself from the report's negative news before adequately responding to the problems it details.

"There's a natural tendency to want to separate away and say, 'Well, Sandusky was a pedophile, and that didn't have anything to do with us.' Or, 'We had a couple of leaders who were bad leaders but who didn't have anything to do with us,'" she said. "But until people there admit that these events are actually saying something about who they are, there will be no closure on this."

Two days before the report was released, Penn State trustees met privately to discuss how they might respond to Mr. Freeh's findings. Among their considerations were protecting the confidentiality of sensitive documents that the university had turned over to Mr. Freeh's investigators, ESPN reported. The Freeh report quoted extensively from those documents, and civil litigants and criminal defendants will very likely seek their disclosure from the university.

But if that's one of the takeaways for trustees, it worries Ms. Staurowsky. "If this is all just a matter of avoiding liability, then I don't think the real lessons from this case have been learned," she said.

It is unclear what changes Penn State might make in response to the report's recommendations. The university approved a new policy this week limiting access to its athletics facilities to players and athletics personnel during normal operating hours. The move is part of a plan to provide the "safest environment possible to our constituents," according to a university statement.

But as long as its leadership has a reputation for showing a "total and consistent disregard" for the welfare of children, the university will continue to face fallout, said Teresa Valerio Parrot, a crisis-communications expert at TVP Communications.

Other observers, however, said the way the university has handled the crisis in recent months may help it put the story to rest sooner than if it had made different choices.

"They wouldn't have been able to put this behind them for the next several years if they hadn't gone about doing this the way they've done it—getting someone like Judge Freeh, whose character is pretty unassailable and who was given carte blanche to see what he found and report it without fear or favor," said John F. Burness, a visiting professor of public policy at Duke University and the university's spokesman during the 2007 lacrosse scandal.

"There is some very bad news in here for Penn State and Coach Paterno and a lot of the leadership of Penn State," he said. "But this is a really critical inflection point for the institution because it is one of the thresholds they had to get through. As difficult as it will be, it was necessary to restore confidence in the integrity of the institution."

Timothy Sandoval contributed to this article from Philadelphia, Jack Stripling from Washington.