Thursday, July 12, 2012

Freeh Report Condemns Penn State's Handling of Sandusky Case

The Freeh Report about the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case unilaterally condemns the university--including President Graham Spanier, top ranking officials Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, the Board of Trustees and football coach Joe Paterno--for completely failing to handle the matter appropriately and indeed covering up Sandusky's crimes instead of following federal laws requiring the reporting of accusations against Sandusky. The press release announcing the findings of the Freeh Report includes this statement that will likely forever alter how Penn State and Coach Paterno are viewed:

Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky's arrest.

When the information about the Sandusky case initially became publicly known last November and the Penn State Board of Trustees reacted swiftly by firing Coach Paterno without even meeting with him, I felt that Paterno was being made into a scapegoat for others' failures. Obviously, if it is true that Paterno clearly knew about Sandusky's criminal actions and participated in a cover-up--as the Freeh Report alleges--then it was correct to fire Paterno. Unfortunately, Paterno became ill and passed away before Freeh's investigators could interview him--and Freeh himself said that he believed that Paterno intended to fully cooperate with the investigation if his health had permitted him to do so. Freeh and his associates reviewed over 3 million documents/emails and conducted more than 430 interviews but--while it is easily confirmed that Spanier, Curley and Schultz directly acted to conceal evidence of Sandusky's crimes--it seems that the main evidence against Paterno is circumstantial: Freeh interpreted the contents of various emails to mean that Paterno had urged Penn State officials--Paterno's superiors, it must be emphasized--to handle the Sandusky matter internally instead of reporting it to outside authorities. Even if that is true--and there is no "smoking gun" that confirms this interpretation of events--the Penn State President and the university's other leaders had a legal and moral obligation to report the allegations about Sandusky to the proper authorities. The idea that Paterno was more concerned about bad publicity than doing the right thing is belied by the high standards that Paterno set for himself and his football program for several decades. In retrospect it is clear that Paterno should have taken a more active role in addressing the Sandusky allegations--Paterno himself expressed regret that he had not done more--but I still find it hard to believe that Paterno knowingly and deliberately covered up child abuse merely to avoid bad publicity for his football program.

Whether Paterno passively let matters take their course or took an active role in Penn State's deplorable handling of the Sandusky case, this is a sad day not just in college football history but in the history of American sports. If Paterno's "Grand Experiment" is in fact tainted then what hope is there for the future of amateur athletics as a positive force in our society? The influx of big money into amateur athletics has perhaps had an irredeemably corrupting influence; that statement is not meant to justify anything that Paterno failed to do but rather to indicate that if even someone who--over the course of several decades--proved himself to be a fundamentally decent and morally upright person could not stay on the right path then perhaps the entire culture of amateur athletics is inherently corrupt. It is simply inexcusable for the football coach to be the most powerful figure on any college campus--and it is indisputable that this is the case, in practice if not in theory, on many, many college campuses.

Here is a statement from the Paterno family regarding the Freeh Report:

We are in the process of reviewing the Freeh report and will need some time before we can comment in depth on its findings and conclusions. From the moment this crisis broke, Joe Paterno supported a comprehensive, fair investigation. He always believed, as we do, that the full truth should be uncovered.

From what we have been able to assess at this time, it appears that after reviewing 3 million documents and conducting more than 400 interviews, the underlying facts as summarized in the report are almost entirely consistent with what we understood them to be. The 1998 incident was reported to law enforcement and investigated. Joe Paterno reported what he was told about the 2001 incident to Penn State authorities and he believed it would be fully investigated. The investigation also confirmed that Sandusky's retirement in 1999 was unrelated to these events.

One great risk in this situation is a replaying of events from the last 15 years or so in a way that makes it look obvious what everyone must have known and should have done. The idea that any sane, responsible adult would knowingly cover up for a child predator is impossible to accept. The far more realistic conclusion is that many people didn't fully understand what was happening and underestimated or misinterpreted events. Sandusky was a great deceiver. He fooled everyone--law enforcement, his family, coaches, players, neighbors, university officials, and everyone at Second Mile.

Joe Paterno wasn't perfect. He made mistakes and he regretted them. He is still the only leader to step forward and say that with the benefit of hindsight he wished he had done more. To think, however, that he would have protected Jerry Sandusky to avoid bad publicity is simply not realistic. If Joe Paterno had understood what Sandusky was, a fear of bad publicity would not have factored into his actions.

We appreciate the effort that was put into this investigation. The issue we have with some of the conclusions is that they represent a judgment on motives and intentions and we think this is impossible. We have said from the beginning that Joe Paterno did not know Jerry Sandusky was a child predator. Moreover, Joe Paterno never interfered with any investigation. He immediately and accurately reported the incident he was told about in 2001.

It can be argued that Joe Paterno should have gone further. He should have pushed his superiors to see that they were doing their jobs. We accept this criticism. At the same time, Joe Paterno and everyone else knew that Sandusky had been repeatedly investigated by authorities who approved his multiple adoptions and foster children. Joe Paterno mistakenly believed that investigators, law enforcement officials, university leaders and others would properly and fully investigate any issue and proceed as the facts dictated.

This didn't happen and everyone shares the responsibility.

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