Freeh report blasts culture of Penn State
By Kevin Johnson and Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
In the litany of horrible acts committed by former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, one illustrates more than any other how the now-convicted pedophile was able to victimize so many young children — for so long — without fear of retribution.
Former FBI director Louis Freeh said Thursday that the most “telling” piece of information in his nearly eight-month investigation into the university’s handling of Sandusky’s misconduct is a 2000 incident in which a Penn State janitor witnessed the once-revered coach performing oral sex on a young boy in a university locker-room shower.
“The janitor who observed it says it’s the worst thing he ever saw,” Freeh said, outlining the explosive findings of his 267-page review, which found a complete failure of the university leadership to stop Sandusky. “He’s a Korean War veteran. … He spoke to the other janitors. They were awed and shocked by it. But, what did they do? They said they can’t report this because they’d be fired. They were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of United States. If that’s the culture on the bottom, God help the culture at the top.”
Over and over, Freeh’s damning report referred to a pervasive and damaging culture at Penn State where the levers of power were tightly controlled by four men — university President Graham Spanier, head football coach Joe Paterno, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz — whose repeated failure to deal with troubling allegations lodged against Sandusky always seemed to be directed by one goal: “to avoid the consequences of bad publicity.”
“The most powerful leaders at Penn State University — Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and 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,” Freeh’s report concluded. “Although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by them for Sandusky’s victims.”
The report, commissioned by the university board in November, comes less than three weeks after Sandusky was convicted by a Pennsylvania jury of 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving 10 victims during a span of 15 years. Sandusky, who filed a motion Thursday to appeal his conviction, remains in a central Pennsylvania county jail awaiting formal sentencing.
Sandusky’s arrest in November prompted a dizzying series of actions, including Spanier’s removal as president and the firing of Paterno, who guided the Penn State football program for nearly 50 years and became the revered public face of the university.
The report described the four officials as wielding such power at the university that they went “unchecked” by Penn State’s board of trustees and “empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus.”
During her time as the vice president for student affairs at Penn State from 2003-07, Vicky Triponey says she witnessed the power that Paterno wielded over the administration. Which is why nothing in the Freeh report about how the scandal was handled surprised her, she told USA TODAY on Thursday. Triponey says the reluctance of the school to act on Sandusky was more than just the fear of bad publicity, as Freeh suggested.
“I think it’s about the image, the whole package of what Penn State football and Penn State became,” said Triponey, now the interim vice president for student affairs at the College of New Jersey. “Penn State became … too big to fail. It wasn’t just that we can’t have bad press. It was, we have to protect this image that we’re perfect.”
Hours after the report’s publication, Penn State’s board of trustees vowed to transform the university’s leadership culture that had failed them so miserably.
“We are horrified. We are saddened,” Karen Peetz, the board chairwoman, said before a packed news conference in Scranton.
Henry Giroux, a Penn State education professor from 1992 to 2004 who now teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, says the report accurately describes the insularity and football-first attitude that he experienced while on campus. But, he noted, the report doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.
“It doesn’t say anything about power, about the influence of big money, about the influence of corporate donors and about how the mission of the university has really gone astray.”
The report’s devastating findings, in addition to representing an indictment of Penn State’s leadership, also recasts the legacy of Paterno. In Philadelphia, where the report was released, Freeh said the longtime coach, who died of cancer in January, could have stopped the abuse “if he so wished.”
But Paterno’s son Jay, a former assistant on his father’s staff, said in a column prepared for USA TODAY that “Joe did not cover up for Jerry Sandusky or conceal information.”
“To suggest that Joe and other high-ranking Penn State officials would have protected a child predator simply to avoid bad publicity is inconceivable,” he wrote.
In a separate statement, Spanier’s attorneys challenged Freeh’s conclusions, saying that the former university president “never” concealed information from authorities.
“At no time in the more than 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 kind,” attorneys Timothy Lewis and Peter Vaira said.
But the Freeh report said a “critical written correspondence” uncovered earlier this year contained evidence of a proposed plan to report a 2001 incident to law enforcement officials involving Sandusky and a young boy in a university shower room that was witnessed by football assistant coach Mike McQueary.
“After Mr. Curley consulted with Mr. Paterno, however, they changed the plan and decided not to make a report to the authorities,” the report said. “Their failure to protect the … child victim, or make attempts to identify him, created a dangerous situation for other unknown, unsuspecting young boys who were lured to the Penn State campus and football games by Sandusky and victimized repeatedly by him.”
Beyond its scathing account of the internal workings of Pennsylvania’s largest university, the review is likely to have immediate implications on a continuing state grand jury investigation and the pending perjury trial of Curley and Schultz. The two administrators, who have denied any wrongdoing, are charged with lying to the grand jury about a report of the 2001 incident that was related to them by McQueary.
Freeh’s report said that “evidence shows” that Curley and Schultz — along with Spanier and Paterno — also knew about a 1998 criminal investigation of Sandusky relating to suspected sexual misconduct with a young boy in a Penn State football locker room shower. The boy’s mother had notified police.
“Again, they showed no concern about that victim,” the report said. “The evidence shows that Mr. Paterno was made aware of the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, followed it closely, but failed to take any action, even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years, and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s.”
The accused react
The actions of the university’s most senior leaders, Freeh’s report concluded, were a reflection of an insular environment that had been allowed to take root for years.
Curley’s attorney, Caroline Roberto, described Freeh’s report as a “lopsided document that leaves the majority of the story untold.”
“The Freeh Group was limited in its investigation by lack of subpoena power and the reluctance of many people to be interviewed,” Roberto said.
Schultz attorney Tom Farrell said there were “no efforts between and among … Schultz, Curley, Paterno and Spanier to conceal Mr. Sandusky’s behavior.”
The report urges the board of trustees to organize a campus-led effort to “vigorously examine and understand the Penn State culture,” including a resistance to seeking outside perspectives and an “excessive focus on athletics.”
No members plan to resign, said Peetz, the board chairwoman. She said the board has already taken action to address Freeh’s 119 recommendations, which also include stricter oversight of the university police department, ensuring compliance with laws that require reporting of misconduct and the “integration” of the athletic department, which was often allowed to operate apart from the univrsity.
“We’re going to set up some very high goals for ourselves,” Peetz said.
Beyond Penn State
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a non-profit umbrella group for college presidents, said the Freeh report is “a very strong reminder of the dangers inherent in a culture of insularity” and could provide a road map for other universities. “The bottom line … remains the same, which is that boards and presidents must run universities, not football coaches or athletic directors.”
“If a janitor at USA TODAY saw something take place, they would probably have the same exact reaction,” said former Penn State football linebacker LaVar Arrington. “They are probably afraid for their job. I think it’s overstated to say that is something directly connected to PSU football culture instead of corporate America culture. I don’t think it’s limited to football.”
A former college administrator counters that sports in the United States is distinctly different.
“Sports of all types, college and professional, play a larger role in American life,” says Harry Peterson, a retired president of Western State College of Colorado and a former chief of staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Most of the report recommendations make sense, but “they will probably not make a large difference in the culture at that university,” Peterson says. “Fundamental changes in intercollegiate athletic culture can only occur at Penn State if they occur throughout the country — and this is not going to happen.”
Penn State freshman Mary Krupa downloaded the report Thursday while sitting at the HUB-Robeson Center on campus. “I wish I could get into their heads,” Krupa said of the accused university officials. “I just really hope the world does not think their actions represent us, the students.”
Beyond the potential legal and personal ramifications, the Freeh report also could represent more financial liability for the university, which is bracing for a wave of civil lawsuits from attorneys representing Sandusky’s eight known victims who testified at the former coach’s trial.
“While this is a good starting point, there is a lot of work to be done to support the conclusions reached in Mr. Freeh’s report,” said attorney Joel Feller, whose firm represents three of the eight victims. “This is just the start.”
Ross Feller Casey, LLP is among the leading experts in child sexual abuse. To learn more go to www.rossfellercasey.com/practice-areas/child-sexual-abuse/