Keeping Score

Breaking Down the Paterno Family’s Rebuttal to the Freeh Report

An investigation that critiques the Freeh report's conclusions about the Jerry Sandusky scandal still leaves many questions unanswered. And can we ever know the full truth?

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On Sunday, the family of Joe Paterno released a 237-page report specifically commissioned to critique former FBI chief Louis Freeh’s original investigation into how Penn State handled the sordid accusations against Jerry Sandusky. It’s a document that’s thorough, meticulous and raises reasonable questions. But here’s where it falters: the most crucial questions are not new. And we’ll probably never know the answers.

Columnist Dan Wetzel, who has been covering the Sandusky affair as close an anyone in the media, has an excellent breakdown of the Paterno rebuttal over at Yahoo Sports. He boils things down to a single essential question: Did Paterno know about the initial 1998 investigation into Sandusky’s inappropriate behavior? (Prosecutors did not press charges against Sandusky at that time.)

Because if he did, when then assistant coach Mike McQueary came to Paterno in 2001 to tell him that he saw Sandusky in the Penn State locker-room showers with a young boy, Paterno’s failure to report the incident straight to public authorities would be more egregious.

During Sandusky’s 2012 trial, McQueary testified that he left out the most graphic details out of respect to Paterno, and Paterno told the Washington Post, in the last interview he did before his death in January 2012, that McQueary said “it, well, looked like inappropriate, or fondling, I’m not quite sure exactly how he put it.”

If Paterno was indeed clued into the 1998 abuse investigation and understood that Sandusky was being accused of inappropriate acts around young boys twice in a three-year span, Wetzel posits, “should’ve sent a man of even weak moral convictions into a flurry of activity.”

So what new evidence does the Paterno report provide that the Penn State football coach did not know about the 1998 incident?

Regarding the Freeh report findings, Wetzel notes:

There were two e-mail chains that suggested Paterno was briefed on the 1998 incident. They included [Penn State athletic director Tim] Curley, [former director of campus police Gary] Schultz and [former university president Graham] Spanier. Paterno never used e-mail, although his secretary maintained an account for him.

One e-mail, dated May 5, 1998, came from Curley and read, ‘I have touched base with the coach. Keep us posted. Thanks.’

The next day Schultz e-mailed back with the subject line ‘Re: Joe Paterno’ and wrote, ‘Will do. Since we talked tonight I’ve learned that the Public Welfare people will interview the individual Thursday.’

There is a later second e-mail chain that includes the campus director of police under the subject line ‘Re: Jerry.’ It deals with numerous Sandusky developments, including him eventually being cleared of charges.

One May 13 e-mail from Curley to the group reads: ‘Anything new in this department? Coach is anxious to know where it stands.’

The Freeh report concluded that the ‘coach’ in the aforementioned e-mails was Joe Paterno. ‘The reference to coach is believed to be Paterno,’ Freeh, the onetime director of the FBI, wrote.

The Paterno family response says that isn’t fair because there is no conclusive proof that ‘coach’ is coach Paterno.

Also, though these e-mails could infer that the university leadership briefed Paterno on the 1998 investigation — that’s the Freeh report’s conclusion — they say nothing about the exact nature of the conversations between these men. So what did Paterno really know?

(MORE: How Should Penn State Deal with Joe Paterno?)

These are all very fair points. But it’s hard to believe the coach referred to in “Coach is anxious to know where it stands” isn’t Paterno. Head football coaches are called by the “coach” honorific all the time. And as for what really Paterno did or did not know — we’ll likely never have 100% certainty, because only Paterno truly knows his thoughts at that time. And he’s not here to express them and respond to these questions.

This was the issue when the Freeh report was released last July. It’s the same issue seven months, and another investigation, later.

ESPN’s Don Van Natta breaks down the dispute about a 2001 e-mail, included in the Freeh report, that suggested Paterno played a role in Penn State’s failure to report McQueary’s accusations against Sandusky to public authorities.

There is another troublesome e-mail implicating coach Paterno that the Paterno family experts challenge. In February 2001, Spanier, Schultz and Curley met to figure out an action plan about the McQueary allegation that he saw Sandusky assaulting a boy in the shower. The options, according to Schultz’s notes: report it to the Pennsylvania Department of Child Welfare, tell the chairman of the board of Sandusky’s charity, The Second Mile, and tell Sandusky ‘to avoid bringing children alone into Lasch Bldg.’

Two days later, Curley reported he had changed his mind about the action plan ‘after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe [Paterno] yesterday.’ Curley decided to talk with Sandusky: if Sandusky was cooperative, they would inform The Second Mile, and not alert authorities. And if he was not cooperative, Curley said then, ‘We don’t have a choice and will inform the authorities.’

Spanier agreed to this approach, saying, ‘The only downside for us if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it. But that can be assessed down the road. The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed.’

All three of the Paterno family’s experts say this single e-mail is insufficient grounds for Freeh to have concluded that Paterno conspired to cover up the 2001 incident. ‘The report falls glaringly short of suggesting, let alone proving, any concealment by Mr. Paterno,’ [Dick] Thornburgh writes in the report.

The Paterno-family investigation notes that the Freeh report provided no evidence explaining the nature of that conversation between Paterno and Curley. In a press conference at the Freeh report’s release, Freeh himself said this was not “circumstantial evidence.”

To Freeh, such evidence led to a “reasonable conclusion” that Paterno was “an integral part of this active decision to conceal” Sandusky’s crimes. The Paterno investigation calls it an “extraordinary assumption.” The NCAA agreed with Freeh and punished the Penn State football program. Will the NCAA reverse course? That doesn’t seem likely.

With the Paterno report in hand, the public can revisit their conclusions about the whether or not the coaching legend had a role in the scandal. But these many months after Sandusky was put away in prison, effectively for life, how many people want to look back?

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