A scathing report that excoriated top Pennsylvania State University officials, including legendary football coach Joe Paterno, for failing to protect boys from a sexual predator sent a warning to other universities about the need to fully disclose suspected crimes on campus.
The report, released Thursday by former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh, also highlights the risk colleges face when they attempt to protect their sports programs from controversy.
The 267-page report, commissioned by university trustees after allegations surfaced about abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, said top Penn State officials, including former President Graham Spanier and the late Mr. Paterno, “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”
The report indicated Penn State had a lax reporting system for crimes or suspected crimes, and thus failed to carry out its requirements under a federal law called the Clery Act, which mandates universities collect information about allegations and warn the campus community about threats. The report also said university officials made decisions designed to protect its revered and highly profitable football program.
The findings are expected to provide key ammunition in civil lawsuits against the university, as well as evidence in existing criminal cases against two former Penn State officials.
Moreover, the conclusions could be used in separate investigations, including those by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling for an investigation into how to prevent such institutional failures.
The widely anticipated report shocked some observers in its sharply critical assessment of the university and its officials. It is expected to prompt more stringent reviews nationwide regarding enforcement of the Clery Act.
“What happened at Penn State is emblematic of a pervasive culture on college campuses where reputation is more important than academic quality, transparency, ethics and accountability,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “It also underscores the distressing fact that, in too many places, the academic mission has taken a back seat to athletics.”
Few in the hierarchy of one of the country’s largest universities escaped blame. Trustees were singled out for not pressing for more information in 2011 after reports surfaced that a grand jury was investigating allegations that Mr. Sandusky had assaulted children on campus. And the investigation described a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community,” the report said.
Mr. Freeh said his investigators sifted through 3.5 million emails and other documents and conducted 430 interviews of current and former Penn State officials, including trustees. Mr. Freeh didn’t have subpoena power, and Mr. Sandusky, former Athletic Director Tim Curley, Vice President Gary Schultz as well as a former public safety director declined to be interviewed. Interviews also weren’t conducted under oath.
Trustee Kenneth Frazier, chief executive of Merck & Co., admitted the board failed to take action. “We are accountable for what’s happened here,” he said at a news conference in Scranton, Pa. “People who were in a position to protect children and confront a predator” did not do so. “We are deeply ashamed.”
Several alumni said they thought some or all of the trustees should resign. “They should look at themselves and say, ‘We failed,’ and step down,” said Wendy Silverwood, 52, of West Chester, Pa.
Most of the report’s blame centered on Messrs. Spanier and Paterno, along with Messrs. Curley and Schultz. The latter two face criminal charges of perjury and failure to report child abuse.
Mr. Freeh said at a Philadelphia briefing “it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University—Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley—repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the board of trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large.”
Mr. Paterno, an iconic figure who set the major-college football record for career victories, “was an integral part of this active decision to conceal,” Mr. Freeh told reporters.
The Paterno family said it needed to review the findings, but said Mr. Paterno reported what he knew about the allegations and thought they were being investigated. “Joe Paterno mistakenly believed that investigators, law enforcement officials, university leaders and others would properly and fully investigate any issue and proceed as the facts dictated. This didn’t happen and everyone shares the responsibility,” the family’s statement said.
Attorneys for Mr. Spanier said Mr. Freeh’s conclusion that the former president was engaged in a course of “active concealment” isn’t supported by facts or the report. “Not only did Dr. Spanier never conceal anything from law enforcement authorities, but prior to 2011 he was never contacted by law enforcement officials, or any other officials, about any criminal activities now attributed to Sandusky.”
A lawyer for Mr. Curley said in a statement that the report is “based on an incomplete record” and that criminal charges against him will be decided “based upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and not upon mere opinions drawn from limited sources.”
An attorney for Mr. Schultz said when his case is heard, it will be clear “that there were no efforts between and among Messrs. Schultz, Curley, Paterno and Spanier to conceal Mr. Sandusky’s behavior.”
The scandal erupted last fall when Mr. Sandusky was charged with abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period, including on Penn State’s campus. In June, the 68-year-old Mr. Sandusky was convicted by a state jury on 45 counts related to child sexual abuse. Mr. Sandusky, who faces a maximum sentence of 442 years in prison, maintains his innocence and plans to appeal.
Penn State President Rodney Erickson, who took over after the scandal led to the removal of his predecessor, said the football program itself wasn’t to blame. “These things happen in schools, in churches, in youth camps all over,” he said.
But the report on how Penn State handled the allegations is “a very sad reminder that we all have to have checks and balances in our lives and within our departments and within our universities,” said Greg Byrne, the athletic director at the University of Arizona.
Indeed, the Freeh report is likely to put fresh focus on how universities maintain safety and whether they comply with the Clery Act. It is named after 19-year-old Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dorm in 1986.
Under the law, “campus security authorities,” including coaches and athletic directors, are required to report crimes to the police. The report said awareness and interest in Clery Act compliance was “significantly lacking” throughout Penn State.
Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton said the department, which is responsible for enforcing the Clery Act, is “working with [Penn State] school officials and law enforcement personnel. The investigation is ongoing and we have no further comment at this time.” A department official said a “conclusion is unlikely any time soon.”
Since 1997, the Department of Education has completed a total of 54 Clery Act investigations, with the largest fine to date assessed to Eastern Michigan University for failing to alert the campus after the 2006 murder of a student and other violations.