NEWS ANALYSIS The Truth About Joe
The clearest evidence of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's understanding of a child-sex abuse allegation against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky does not appear anywhere in the 238-page report released Sunday by a panel of experts enlisted in his family's burgeoning campaign to restore his legacy.
The inclusion of Paterno's admission to a grand jury in January 2011 that he understood a witness had seen Sandusky engaging in activity of a "sexual nature" with a young boy would have run counter to the experts' portrayal of Paterno as a naïve grandfather who had little understanding of sexual abuse between men and boys.
In its place, a former FBI profiler hired by the Paterno team offered an analysis that excused the former coach's lack of immediate action as the byproduct of a preconceived notion of Sandusky's character and poor communication from the witness, former graduate assistant Mike McQueary.
It was a glaring gap in an otherwise cogent rebuttal to the university-commissioned investigation that implicated Paterno in a high-level conspiracy with university president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz to hide allegations against Sandusky from law enforcement for more than a decade.
The Paterno experts - led by the family's attorney Wick Sollers, former Gov. Dick Thornburgh and the former FBI profiler, James T. Clemente - called the university investigation "incomplete" and a "rush to injustice."
Penn State wholly accepted the findings of the investigation, conducted by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association used it as the basis for the severe sanctions it imposed against the university's football team last July, despite being drawn from what Sollers called a "set of very thin facts." Penn State president Rodney Erickson ordered a bronze statue of Paterno removed from outside the university's football stadium 10 days after Freeh released his report.
Sollers, appearing Sunday morning on the ESPN program "Outside the Lines" with Thornburgh and Clemente, called on the NCAA to reverse to reverse the sanctions, which included a $60 million fine; a bowl ban for each of the next four years; the elimination of 20 football scholarships; and the reversal of more than 100 victories, plummeting Paterno from first to 12th of all time. He would not rule out a lawsuit, saying: "We're considering all options at this point."
"Realistically we believe our reports are compelling and this problem needs to be addressed now," Sollers said.
The release of the rebuttal report Sunday on the website paterno.com kicked off a renewed effort by the Paterno family to restore the once-revered coach's name and reputation after more than a year of doubt created by his firing, in November 2011, the university investigation, and the official distancing of the university from the hall-of-fame coach. Paterno's widow, Sue, is scheduled to give her first interview since his death to Katie Couric today.
Freeh, in a statement Sunday, defended his investigation and criticized the Paterno family's rebuttal as "self-serving." Freeh said nothing in the Paterno report would "change the facts" or "alter the conclusions" of his investigation.
Penn State, in a statement, said it is "understandable and appreciated that people will draw their own conclusions and opinions from the facts uncovered in the Freeh report." By the end of the year, the university said, it will have enacted all 119 policy changes Freeh said would foster an environment that "protects children and not adults who abuse them."
State Sen. John Yudichak, a Penn State alumnus, praised the Paterno family for "teaching us lessons on how to deal with life's challenges by imploring us to seek the full truth."
"Only the truth can serve Sandusky's victims and prevent such heinous crimes from happening again," Yudichak said in a statement.
Thornburgh, in his analysis, examined Freeh's report through the narrow prism of a prosecutor, applying a higher burden of proof than that required for a noncriminal, university-funded probe or the non-existent standards of the court of public opinion.
Thornburgh, whose tenure as governor coincided with Paterno's two national championships and who served as U.S. Attorney General under Paterno's friend, President George H.W. Bush, said Freeh's findings were "seriously flawed" and failed to reach the "kind of conclusions" he would have insisted on for one of his cases.
Freeh's investigators, Thornburgh said, interviewed more than 400 witnesses but were unable to speak to key figures in the case, including Curley or Schultz, because they were facing criminal prosecution. Freeh's investigators, Thornburgh said, purported to review more than 3.5 million documents, but only cited 30, including 17 emails, in their final report.
"Each one of the Freeh report's main observations about Joe Paterno is wrong: each is either contradicted or unsubstantiated by the evidence," Sollers wrote in his summary of the rebuttal findings. "The authors of the Freeh report chose not to present alternative, more plausible conclusions regarding Joe Paterno's role in the events involving Jerry Sandusky."
The experts behind the Paterno report, working off many of the same facts and much of the same evidence, reached vastly different conclusions than the Freeh team, such as with Clemente's analysis of Paterno's understanding of what the witness, former graduate assistant Mike McQueary, told him he about and incident in a shower at the Penn State football building in February 2001.
Despite testimony to the contrary, Clemente said McQueary "ineptly" suggested to Paterno that the shower incident "seemed like a huge misunderstanding." Paterno responded in a deliberate fashion, alerting Curley and Schultz the next day but not calling the police, because McQueary never conveyed to Paterno that he thought Sandusky was "having sex with the boy," Clemente said.
"Paterno could not make the huge leap from the watered-down, sketchy description and superficial information McQueary told him to the realization that Sandusky was actually a child sex offender," Clemente wrote.
McQueary testified he told Paterno the shower activity appeared "extremely sexual," "sexual in nature" and "way over the line," but Clemente said he needed to be more direct because merely implying a sex act would not have been enough to "undermine Paterno's years of interactions with Sandusky and Sandusky's image as a pillar of the community."
Still, in his testimony before the grand jury a decade later, Paterno said he understood the nature of what McQueary had witnessed. It is unclear if Paterno's knowledge of the investigation influenced his word choice or if he expressed the same understanding he had in February 2001.
"Obviously he was doing something with a youngster," Paterno testified. "It was of a sexual nature. I'm not sure exactly what it was."
Paterno family spokesman Dan McGinn did not respond to an email message Sunday asking about the omission of the former coach's grand jury testimony.
According to Freeh's investigation, Paterno dissuaded top administrators from taking a February 2001 allegation against Sandusky to law enforcement even though evidence showed he had closely monitored a brief university police investigation into a similar episode of abuse involving Sandusky three years earlier.
"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," Freeh said at the time of the report's release. "The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized."
McQueary, the graduate assistant who witnessed the February 2001 abuse, reported it to Paterno and later to athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz. None of them alerted the authorities and Sandusky continued to freely use the football facility, McQueary said.
Paterno's influence and the administrators' willingness to protect Sandusky from punishment amid the dual reports of abuse in campus showers were indicative of a cloistered culture at Penn State where doing what was right crumbled under the weight of fear at all levels, Freeh said.
At the top, Freeh said, Paterno, Curley, Schultz and president Graham Spanier cowered at the notion of bad publicity for the university and its heralded football program. At the bottom, Freeh said, the janitors who witnessed Sandusky abusing a boy in a campus shower in November 2000 feared being fired if they alerted authorities.
Clemente, the FBI profiler hired by Paterno's family, described Sandusky as a "skillful manipulator" and "masterful groomer."
Only Sandusky, who was convicted last June on 45 counts of child-sex abuse and is serving 30 to 60 years in state prison, should be blamed for abusing young boys for so long, Clemente said.
"Blaming it on the culture of football is absolutely wrong," Clemente said. "Blaming it on Penn State University is absolutely wrong."
As he lay dying last January, Paterno scribbled a final thought about the scandal that had engulfed the university and tarnished his legacy, according to the rebuttal report released Sunday. For all the pain they caused, Paterno wrote, the allegations against Sandusky had "brought about more enlightenment" to the horrors of child-sex abuse.