This post is going to be kind of long, and for that I apologize. But I’ve been following the Jerry Sandusky case for a long time, and I feel the need to comment about the findings of the Freeh Report issued today–an independent investigation conducted by a consulting firm headed by a former head of the FBI hired by the Penn St. Board of Trustees to figure out the extent to which Penn St’s culture might have contributed to the scandal. In particular, reading the report and watching the press conference, I can’t help but feel how horribly, terribly, and tragically reasonable so many people’s actions seemed to be here–with a couple key, jaw-dropping exceptions. But it reminds me just how easy it is to lose sight of what the important things really are.
So first a quick summary, in the form of biographies of some of the key players:
Joe Paterno — Head Football Coach at Penn State University, and he was there forever; seriously, if they haven’t yet discovered Neolithic cave paintings in France of Paterno patrolling the Penn St. sidelines they will soon. Paterno had a reputation for valuing loyalty and character above all else. His Penn State football program, as far as NCAA violations was concerned, was one of the cleanest in the nation, and he had an extremely high graduation rate–and yet he still managed to field teams that were competitive at a national level almost every year. Paterno died last year, about six weeks after he lost his job as a result of this scandal. To give you an idea of Paterno’s power, once in the early 2000s the President of the University decided to fire Paterno. He went to Paterno’s house to deliver the news, but Paterno started yelling at him, refused to hear it, and kicked him out of his house. Paterno then made a couple phone calls to the board of trustees, and kept his job.
Jerry Sandusky — Defensive Coordinator at Penn State, and Paterno’s right-hand man, from the 1970s until he retired in 1999. Considered a brilliant defensive coach, and for a long time was considered Paterno’s likely successor should Paterno ever choose to retire; Sandusky decided to retire when Paterno told him that he (Paterno) had no plans on retiring any time soon, and that if/when he did he’d probably recommend that Penn State go with a younger successor. (This conversation happened in early 1998, before the events that will be described below.) After formally retiring from the program, in a VERY unusual move Sandusky was given an office in the athletic department, full access to facilities, named emeritus faculty, was explicitly allowed to hold football camps for middle school boys at the university, and was given a $169,000 retirement bonus. In the late 1970s Sandusky also started a charity, Second Mile, to help underprivileged kids–a charity he remained very active with, up until he was charged with sexual abuse last year. Sandusky was just convicted of sexually abusing 10 different kids, going back to 1995–mostly kids that he got to know through the Second Mile program, although most of the assaults happened on Penn St property or at Penn St events. Also, I should note for context, that while Sandusky is in his 60s now, he’s in good shape, and he is a very tall, very large man.
Tim Curley — Penn State Athletic Director (AD) since 1993. Technically Paterno’s boss, and the man ultimately in charge of all athletic departments, teams, and facilities, Curley reported directly to the President of the University. Curley lost his job last year after being charged with lying to a grand jury about the Sandusky case.
Gary Schultz — Senior Vice President of Finance and Business from 1995 to 2009 when he retired. He came out of retirement in 2011 to fill the seat temporarily while they searched for a long-term replacement, but lost that job after two months when he was also arrested for perjury in conjunction with the Sandusky case. Curley and Schultz should be having their trials in the near future. Schultz’s job was to oversee all of the administrative and non-academic departments of the university, including the University Police.
Graham Spanier — President of Penn State University from 1995 until he was fired along with Paterno in November of 2011. Thus far, he has not been charged with anything, although the Freeh report alleges several criminal actions on his part.
Alright, so the story picks up in the mid-1990s. There are no allegations of sexual misconduct before 1995. This doesn’t mean that Sandusky didn’t do anything wrong, but victims haven’t come forward, that era was before email and often electronic record keeping, and there is a statute of limitations so no one has gone digging. We do know that between 1995 and 1998, Sandusky molested several boys, some of them on Penn State property. We also know that a number of Penn State employees during this period reported seeing Sandusky showering with young boys, but none of them reported seeing any misconduct.
Okay, so I know that by now some people are already up in arms, so let me at least explain why that may not be as bad as it may seem. Shower facilities in locker rooms, especially in older buildings, were often wide open; lines of shower heads along the walls and a drain in the middle, and that’s it. So there may be 20 shower heads in the shower of a large locker room; to have 2, 3, 5, 10, or 20 guys in there, of varying ages, all naked and all showering would not have been uncommon. Of course, standard norms are to use showers as far apart as possible, and despite what you see in the movies, most guys aren’t particularly chatty; they tend to keep their heads down and go about their business. Now clearly people remembered seeing Sandusky alone with young boys on a regular basis, and they thought this strange, and clearly some people reported the behavior as a bit peculiar; but so far, we’re far from proving illegal activity.
In 1998, however, that changes. In 1998, Sandusky takes a kid that he knows through his charity to work out at the Penn State facilities, and then they go to shower off afterwards. Sandusky insists on them using adjacent shower-heads (red flags should be going off right now), and while in the shower Sandusky comes up from behind the kid, picks him up off the ground and “bear-hugs” him. The next morning, the kid is acting strangely, so the mother pries the story out of him, and then calls the authorities. At this point there is a full investigation by university police, and the child is interviewed by two different social workers. The first social worker says that this sounds like classic predatory behavior from a pedophile who is in the early stages of pushing the boundaries of inappropriate contact with a potential victim. Unfortunately, that social worker got moved off the case because of a potential conflict of interest–essentially, she had loose ties to the Second Mile charity. The second social worker interviews the child but comes to a starkly different conclusion–that what Sandusky did was inappropriate, but didn’t sound to him like the behavior of a sex-offender. Because of the conflicting reports the DA decided not to press charges. The University Police interviewed Sandusky about the incident, and while Sandusky gave the same version of events as the kid, claimed that there was absolutely nothing sexual at all. The University Police investigator knew by this point that the DA wasn’t going to file charges, and so he filed his report and didn’t make an arrest.
Okay, all of which brings us back to the administration. Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier all knew about the 1998 incident and investigation, while it was happening. Curley and Schultz, in particular, were briefed on the entirety of the incident by the University Police. At this point in time, Sandusky has told Curley that he is planning on retiring, but Sandusky has not yet retired. Schultz, in particular, knows that at least one social worker is worried about this being a pattern of behavior, and has himself wondered in an email to Curley about other potential victims. .
And yet everyone becomes so focused on what the DA can and can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they lose sight of what they can do to protect Sandusky’s potential victims. Any of those four Penn State Officials could have contacted Second Mile charity, and informed them of the results of the University’s investigation–which said, at the minimum, that Sandusky completely lacked a sense of propriety about appropriate behavior with children. Moreover, at that point, in 1998, Penn State could have allowed Sandusky to retire and simply forced him to sever ties completely with the university–instead of giving him emeritus status, and allowing him continued access to the university and it’s facilities. Finally, there is zero evidence that any of those four individuals–that is the four people in the world who Sandusky might have been forced to listen to–ever went and discussed the matter with him at the time. None of them confronted him about the allegations, or demanded that he seek treatment as a condition for continued affiliation with the university, or used the investigation as an excuse to educate their employees about appropriate vs. inappropriate contact with minors, or anything.
Instead, it became a matter of “well, the DA can’t prove it, therefore he must be innocent, so let’s now pretend it never happened.” And they pretended for three more years, while several more kids (that we know of) were molested on Penn State property or at Penn State events. Until November, 2000, when a janitor sees Sandusky performing oral sex on a minor in a shower. The janitor freaks out, and goes back to his break-room where he shares what he sees with a couple other janitors. None of them act surprised; one of them even says that he sees Sandusky walking out of the shower a little later holding hands with the same boy. They talk it over, but eventually the janitor decides to do nothing; while his buddies are willing to back him up, he is afraid that if he reports what he saw, that he and his friends will all lose their jobs and that he can’t afford to do that to any of their families.
Three months later, in Feb. 2001, Sandusky was caught having sex with a boy in a shower again, this time by Mike McQueary. McQueary was a former Penn State QB, was at that time a graduate assistant (basically a grad student working for the football team on an unpaid internship) and would go on to be an assistant coach for them before leaving Penn State as a result of the firestorm around this scandal. McQueary was also freaked out by what he saw, late on a Friday night; he went home and called his dad. The next morning (Sat) he went with his dad to Paterno’s house and told Paterno what he saw; Paterno assured McQueary that he would take care of it. Paterno waited until Sunday (“I didn’t want to spoil their weekends”) and then told Schultz and Curley what McQueary had told him.
This starts a series of conversations between Schultz, Paterno, Curley, and Spanier about what to do. They discuss going to child welfare services and/or contacting the Second Mile charity. They end up doing neither of those things. Schultz and Curley had reviewed their notes from the 1998 incident immediately upon learning about the new charges, and Shultz asked the police if they still had the full report from the 1998 investigation (they did).
So then Schultz and Curley talk to McQueary themselves, to get the story straight from him–which, by the way, elicits the most jaw-dropping quote from this entire report. ”Schultz told the … grand jury that he did not recall specifically what McQueary reported but that his impression was that there was some physical contact, some horsing around, some wrestling that resulted in contact with a boy’s genitals in the context of wrestling. Schultz testified that he did not understand the incident to have involved sexual conduct or intercourse.” Think about that for a minute. Schultz knows that Sandusky came a hair’s breath from being charged with a similar incident, in a shower at Penn State, three years earlier. Now he’s sitting their listening to a guy telling him about walking in on a 60 year old man and a 10 year old boy in a shower–and his first thought is “oh, they were just wrestling, and there was some incidental genital contact”. Wrestling. While naked. In a shower. No, nothing inappropriate or sexual about that at all!
So, once again, does anyone decide to take precautionary measures to protect other kids? Certainly not. Does anyone try to use this to educate the staff about when/how to report these kinds of incidents, what to do if you suspect that a child is endangered, or how to avoid the perception of misconduct? Nope. Does anyone make any attempt to identify the child and make sure he was okay? No, and in fact Sandusky claims that he tried to tell Curley the name of the child and Curley didn’t want to know. Instead, they treat Sandusky like an addict: they go to him, tell him that he needs to get help, tell him that he shouldn’t bring kids to the facilities by himself anymore (a dictum that no one ever makes any attempt to enforce), and get a promise from him that he’ll be good in the future. Within six months, he molests another boy in a shower at Penn State.
After reading this report, I don’t think that there was a grand conspiracy to cover-up Sandusky’s behavior. Instead, I think that Paterno and Curley thought that they knew Sandusky after working with him for decades, and therefore they started with the assumption that the accusations must have been false–that there must have been a good explanation for everything. Once you start from a place of looking for reasons to find Sandusky innocent–instead of looking at the situation first from the perspective of protecting any potential victims–then suddenly a lot of their behaviors become much more understandable. They were slow to go to the authorities or after McQueary’s report because they knew that such an investigation could be potentially embarrassing for the university and for all of them as individuals–and why go through that when they know Sandusky, and the guy they know can’t possibly have done those things?
And that, I think, is the lesson, and the danger, for all of us. By the simple virtue that they are our biases and they bias our thinking, we can’t really overcome our own biases. If you’re biased to think that someone is innocent, you’ll bend over backwards to find the evidence that demonstrates that they are probably innocent–or at least ignore the evidence that might point to their guilt. So yes, these men should have done better. They were put in positions of leadership and paid a heck of a lot of money exactly so that when these kinds of tough decisions came down the pike, that they would make them with integrity and wisdom. And all four of those men: Paterno, Schultz, Curley, and Spanier, failed that test miserably. But before we demonize them, keep in mind that it was a test I think most of us would have failed. Because despite our protestations and our condemnations, at the end of the day how many of us would keep an open mind if one of our long-time colleagues, whom we’ve trusted for twenty years or more, was accused of an absolutely unthinkable act? Or how many of us would instead start from the position that “well, that accusation must be false”–and thereby bias and distort every subsequent decision that we make?