WASHINGTON — Top officials at Penn State University, including former head football coach Joe Paterno, knew as far back as 1998 that Jerry Sandusky was molesting young boys on campus, yet they repeatedly failed to take action to stop it and even hid the allegations from the university and the public, according to the findings of a long-awaited report released Thursday.
The results of an eight-month investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh spared no one in the Penn State hierarchy. The report shifted the focus away from Sandusky – who’s awaiting sentencing after being convicted last month on 45 of 48 counts of molesting 10 boys over a 15-year-period – and put it squarely on Penn State.
“The most saddening finding by the special investigative counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims,” the report said.
Those leaders included Paterno, former President Graham Spanier, former Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Vice President Gary Schultz. All four “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade,” the report said.
The report could have profound consequences for the university, including legal liability, the potential loss of federal student aid and even punishment for its storied football program.
The university board of trustees hired Freeh in November after Sandusky’s arrest to conduct the probe. After the trustees met Thursday in Scranton, Pa., trustee Ken Frazier said at a news conference that the board had failed to hold Spanier, Curley, Schultz and Paterno accountable.
“Our hearts remain heavy, and we are deeply ashamed,” Frazier said.
Freeh’s team spent months interviewing more than 400 university employees and reviewing a trove of emails exchanged by top officials. Its scathing 267-page report casts blame on the university from top to bottom.
“There’s more red flags here than you could count,” Freeh said at a news conference Thursday in Philadelphia.
The report said that top officials – including Spanier, Curley, Schultz and Paterno – “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the university’s board of trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large” to avoid bad publicity for the university.
It found that the board of trustees failed to demand detailed information from Spanier once it became aware of the allegations against Sandusky early last year. Spanier also “failed in his duties as president” when he didn’t advise the board about the state grand jury investigation of Sandusky, the report said.
Lower-ranking employees such as janitors who’d witnessed Sandusky assaulting a boy on campus didn’t report the incident because they feared losing their jobs, it said.
“If that’s the culture at the bottom, God help the culture at the top,” Freeh said.
Curley and Schultz were charged in November with perjury and failure to protect children based on their testimony to a state grand jury. Curley subsequently resigned and Schultz retired. Through their lawyers, they and Spanier have denied any wrongdoing.
The university board of trustees fired Paterno and Spanier less than a week after Sandusky’s arrest in November. Spanier could face charges similar to those of Curley and Schultz.
Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator, probably will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Paterno, who died of lung cancer in January, was never charged in the case and wasn’t interviewed by investigators before his death. But the investigators found evidence that the legendary coach knew of Sandusky’s behavior for years and did little to stop it.
“I regret that, based on the damage it does to his legacy,” Freeh said Thursday. “I wish we had the opportunity to speak to him.”
Earlier in the week, Paterno’s family criticized leaked emails from the investigation that appeared to show that he knew something and didn’t take action – or worse, encouraged others not to act.
But in a statement Thursday, Paterno’s family said the late former coach “wasn’t perfect.”
“It can be argued that Joe Paterno should have gone further,” the family’s statement said. “He should have pushed his superiors to see that they were doing their jobs. We accept this criticism.”
Penn State could be held liable for tens of millions of dollars if the victims sue for damages. After the Sandusky verdict last month, the university began contacting the eight young men who testified against him in an effort to reach an out-of-court settlement.
The university could face other consequences. The Freeh report says that university officials’ failure to report suspected child abuse violated not only state law but also a little-known 22-year-old federal law that requires all higher education institutions that participate in federal student loan programs to accurately report crimes on their campuses. The Clery Act allows the U.S. Department of Education to suspend student aid funding to a university that violates the law.
The report found that the university had not trained its staff, including those in the football program, in their responsibilities under that law and added that “most had never heard of the Clery Act.”
The U.S. Department of Education is conducting its own investigation of Penn State, which earlier this year hired a compliance officer on Freeh’s recommendation to help the university meet the law’s requirements.
“We’ll work with all relevant campus officials and law enforcement personnel to determine whether or not there was a violation of the Clery Act,” Justin Hamilton, a department spokesman, said in an email.
It remains to be seen how the Freeh report will affect the football program that Paterno led for decades. Wednesday, Paterno’s family posted a letter the coach wrote to players in December attempting to distance university athletics from the scandal.
“This is not a football scandal and should not be treated as one,” Paterno wrote. “It is not an academic scandal and does not in any way tarnish the hard earned and well-deserved academic reputation of Penn State.”
But John Thelin, a professor of education at the University of Kentucky and the author of books and articles on college sports scandals, said the Freeh report suggests a bigger problem.
“It is about Penn State. It is about state universities. It is about athletic culture,” he said. “Whatever befalls Sandusky, Penn State’s work has just started.”
The Freeh report may add to pressure on the National Collegiate Athletic Association to punish the university, but it isn’t clear if collegiate sports’ governing body thinks Penn State’s institutional problems fall under its jurisdiction. The NCAA said in a statement Thursday that Penn State must respond to the report’s findings.
“We expect Penn State’s continued cooperation in our examination of these issues,” the NCAA said.
The NCAA has only once meted out its ultimate punishment – the “death penalty” – to a college football program, when it canceled Southern Methodist University’s 1987 football season. SMU was suspended over tens of thousands of dollars in cash payments given to its players.
Because the Freeh report raises issues that go beyond college sports, Thelin said, the NCAA may need some time to think it over.
“They’re probably reluctant to use that power,” he said. “If they guess right, they might be OK. If they guess wrong, they’ll be in trouble.”
(Anne Danahy of the Centre Daily Times contributed from Scranton, Pa.)