Freeh report holds Paterno accountable

Posted: July 13, 2012

Joe Paterno's reputation was not destroyed by Jerry Sandusky. His legacy was not permanently stained by Louis Freeh.

It was Paterno who ruined Paterno. That was the painful and unavoidable message contained in Freeh's blistering report, which was released Thursday morning.

Paterno knew as far back as 1998 that Sandusky was being investigated for possible child abuse. He never took actions to stop his longtime assistant coach, never reported him outside the Penn State bubble. Worst of all, there is evidence Paterno persuaded other university officials not to report Sandusky in 2001.

Sandusky's victims were the children he raped and abused. The men who shielded him - Paterno, Graham B. Spanier, Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz - were victims only of their own arrogance and failure to do even the most fundamentally decent things when given the chance. That arrogance and failure allowed Sandusky to victimize more innocent children.

The words in Freeh's report are clear and disturbing and leave nowhere for Penn State apologists to hide:

"Total and consistent disregard . . ."

"Failed to protect . . ."

"Concealed Sandusky's activities . . ."

These were the worst possible suspicions when the original grand jury report landed like a grenade in State College back in November. Those suspicions, of a cover-up by Penn State leadership in order to protect the university and its football program, were confirmed by Freeh's seven-month investigation.

Fittingly, those suspicions were confirmed by the very men whose actions gave Sandusky cover for nearly 14 years - by Paterno, Schultz, Curley, and Spanier. Freeh's investigators uncovered damning e-mails and documents that revealed, as Freeh put it in a news conference in Philadelphia, a "callous and shocking disregard for the child victims."

That is now a permanent stain on Paterno's legacy. Freeh's report offered Penn State's board of trustees nearly 200 recommendations to prevent similar problems arising in the future. It did not, however, tell the university what to do about the pervasive presence of the Paterno name on campus.

There will be cries to take down the statue of Paterno outside the football stadium, to remove Paterno's name from the library he and his wife endowed. There will be calls to scrub the campus of all things Paterno related.

But that's a mistake, too.

Penn State can no more erase Joe Paterno from its history than it can pretend the entire Sandusky nightmare never happened. Indeed, this "Happy Valley" culture of pretending things are fine and deliberately overlooking potentially ugly or unpleasant truths actually helped allow this whole series of events to unfold as it did.

The statue of Paterno should stand. Taking it down is too easy. Future students and visitors will be capable of viewing it as both a tribute to a great football coach and a warning against worshiping false idols. We can see a statue of Robert E. Lee and understand that he was both a great general and a flawed man who chose to defend slaveholding states against the Union.

As with the original grand jury report that led to Paterno's firing, the Freeh report stands on the very words of the men involved. Paterno denied knowing anything about the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, but e-mails at the time tell a different story. Paterno was aware and "anxious" to be kept up to date with the investigation. Schultz took notes wondering if the investigation represented the opening of "Pandora's box" for the university.

And because Paterno, Schultz, Curley, and Spanier all knew about the 1998 incident, their actions in 2001 are both easier to understand and harder to forgive. They were now complicit, having allowed Sandusky to escape any consequences in 1998. To report the 2001 incident witnessed by Mike McQueary was to invite unwelcome scrutiny about their 1998 actions.

The e-mails uncovered by Freeh's team show how the four men rationalized away their responsibilities to stop Sandusky and protect his victims. Spanier, Schultz, and Curley decided on a course of action that included reporting the incident to the Department of Public Welfare.

Then, after talking to Paterno, Curley e-mailed the others that he wasn't "comfortable" with the agreed-upon plan. Ultimately, nothing was done.

As the report points out, that not only allowed Sandusky to continue to sexually assault children, it placed the child McQueary saw in even more danger. None of the four men in power - Spanier, Paterno, Curley, or Schultz - ever attempted to find out the identity of that child. That alone is enough to damn them all.

Curley and Schultz refused to talk to Freeh's group. Schultz fought to keep his notes and e-mails from being examined. Spanier declined an interview for months, then suddenly requested one last week. Paterno died before Freeh's team unearthed the e-mails and documents that revealed the holes in his public comments.

It is all unbearably sad and awful. As someone who respected and admired Paterno for years, there is a sense of betrayal and disappointment on top of the deep sorrow.

Make no mistake, though. Paterno and Spanier, Curley and Schultz are paying the price now for their actions, not Sandusky's. They put the university and the football program ahead of innocent children, and everyone lost. Everyone.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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