STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) ?? A blistering report that claims Joe Paterno and other top Penn State officials concealed what they knew about Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of children may prove to be an indelible stain on the beloved coach's 61-year tenure at the school where he preached "success with honor."
Paterno's supporters are legion, though, and some insist the late coach got a raw deal from former FBI Director Louis Freeh, whose 267-page report on the Sandusky scandal Thursday asserted that Paterno and senior Penn State officials made a decision to protect Sandusky to avoid damaging the image of the school and its powerful football program.
Penn State's internal investigation into one of the worst scandals in sports history is unlikely to settle the debate about Paterno's culpability ?? even as it showed him to be more deeply involved in the university's response to 1998 and 2001 abuse complaints about Sandusky than previously thought.
Damaging emails unearthed by Freeh and his team of lawyers and ex-law enforcement officials show the extent to which Paterno, Penn State President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz fretted over what to do about Sandusky. Ultimately, they did nothing ?? and their inaction allowed the retired defensive coordinator to continue molesting boys, the report found.
Freeh also faulted university trustees for failing to exercise proper oversight and said a culture that showed excessive reverence for the football program helped protect a pedophile. Sandusky, 68, was convicted last month of abusing 10 boys over 15 years and will likely die in prison.
Freeh's report could impact the ongoing criminal case against Curley and Schultz, who are charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to report child abuse. It will certainly factor into any future discussion about Paterno and a Hall of Fame career that includes two national championships, 409 wins, and the coach's self-proclaimed "grand experiment" that tried to blend academics, athletics and right living.
Karen Peetz, chairwoman of the board of trustees, said the panel believes Paterno's "61 years of excellent service to the university is now marred" by the scandal. Phil Knight, the Nike founder who won thunderous applause with his passionate defense of the coach at his January memorial service, acknowledged Thursday that "it appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences. I missed that Joe missed it, and I am extremely saddened on this day."
Yet hours after the release of Freeh's report, people were still eating scoops of Peachy Paterno ice cream at Berkey Creamery on campus, Joe Paterno shirts still hung in stores across the street from the administration building, and many of those closest to Penn State and Paterno said their faith in the coach remained unshakeable.
"I don't care what anyone says, it doesn't change the fact that he's a great man," said Briana Marshall, a junior from East Stroudsburg.
Some students and alumni felt that Freeh turned Paterno into a scapegoat, and that there was little direct evidence that he took part in a cover-up. Paterno died before he could meet with investigators.
"It's easy to vilify or blame someone who's not alive to defend himself," said Tim Sweeney, president of Penn State's official Football Letterman's Club.
Freeh, who was hired by the school's board of trustees to investigate the scandal, expressed regret for any damage to Paterno's "terrific legacy." But he stood by his work.
"What my report says is what the evidence and the facts show," he said.
What they showed, the report said, was that Paterno, Spanier, Curley and Schultz "failed to protect against a child sexual predator," burying the allegations against Sandusky out of a desire to "avoid the consequences of bad publicity."
Freeh said officials had opportunities in 1998 and 2001 to step in.
In 1998, campus police investigated after a woman complained that her son had showered with Sandusky. The investigation did not result in charges. But the emails show Paterno clearly followed the case, Freeh said, and university officials took no action at the time to limit Sandusky's access to campus ?? a decision that would pave the way for Sandusky to victimize more youths.
Three years later, a coaching assistant told Paterno that he had seen Sandusky sexually abusing a boy in the locker room showers.
Freeh, citing emails and handwritten notes, concluded that Paterno intervened to stop a plan by Curley, Schultz and Spanier to report the 2001 allegation by graduate assistant Mike McQueary to child-welfare authorities.
According to the report, the administrators intended to inform the state Department of Public Welfare. But Curley later said in an email that he changed his mind about the plan "after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe." Instead, Curley proposed to offer Sandusky "professional help."
In an email, Spanier agreed that course of action would be "humane" but noted "the only downside for us is if the message isn't (heard) and acted upon and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it."
Paterno "was an integral part of this active decision to conceal" and his firing was justified, Freeh said at a news conference in Philadelphia, calling the officials' disregard for child victims "callous and shocking."
In a statement, Paterno's family strongly denied he protected Sandusky for fear of bad publicity.
"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," the family said. "Sandusky was a great deceiver. He fooled everyone."
Attorneys for Spanier, Curley and Schultz vehemently denied Freeh's conclusions and said there was no effort to hide Sandusky's behavior.
The report chronicled a culture of silence that extended from the president down to the janitors in the football building. Even before 1998, football staff members and coaches regularly saw Sandusky showering with boys but never told their superiors about it. In 2000, after a janitor saw Sandusky performing oral sex on a boy in the team shower, he told his co-workers. None of them went to police for fear of losing their jobs.
Reporting the assault "would have been like going against the president of the United States in my eyes," a janitor told Freeh's investigators. "I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone." He went on to assert that "football runs this university."
Freeh said Thursday the janitors "were afraid to take on the football program. If that's the culture at the bottom, God help the culture at the top."
Attorneys representing Sandusky's victims say the report showed that Penn State failed the youngsters it had a responsibility to protect.
"The Freeh report is absolutely devastating to Penn State," said Andrew Shubin and Justine Andronici, part of a legal team that represents several victims in the case, including three who testified against Sandusky. "It confirms that at the highest level, Penn State officials, including the university president and head football coach, knew that Sandusky was a child predator, but made the deliberate and reprehensible decision to conceal his abuse. They chose to protect themselves, Penn State's brand and image, and their football program instead of children."
Associated Press National Writer Nancy Armour and AP writers Marc Scolforo in Harrisburg, Genaro C. Armas in Scranton and Geoff Mulvihill, Maryclaire Dale and Randy Pennell in Philadelphia contributed to this report.Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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