Penn State's insular culture shielded Sandusky

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, right, poses with defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky during Penn State Media Day at State College, Pa., Aug. 6, 1999.
AP Photo

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The warning signs were there for more than a decade, disturbing indicators that Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was breaching boundaries with young boys — or maybe worse.

Yet the university's top administrators kept allowing, even encouraging, Sandusky to invite some of those boys into campus sports buildings — locker rooms, showers, a sauna and a swimming pool — where prosecutors now say he fondled, molested and sexually assaulted some of the most vulnerable in the place known as Happy Valley.

Too many, from the university president to department heads to janitors, knew of troubling behavior by this revered, longtime coach who founded a charity for children with hardscrabble backgrounds. But at this school whose sports programs vow "success with honor," the circle of knowledge was kept very limited and very private.

Year after year, Penn State missed opportunity after opportunity to stop Sandusky. Secrecy ruled, and reaction to complaints of improper sexual behavior was to remain silent, minimize or explain away — all part of a deep-rooted reflex to protect the sacred football program.

The fact that so few say they knew is all anyone needs to know about the insular culture that surrounds Penn State — a remote and isolated community in a central Pennsylvania valley, a university cloaked in so much secrecy, in large part, because it is exempt from the state's open records law, and a football program that has prided itself on handling its indiscretions internally and quietly, without outside interference.

Prosecutors say the only thing that stopped Sandusky, who retired a year after a 1998 allegation was not prosecuted, was when he was accused elsewhere, a decade later, of sexually abusing a freshman at a local high school where Sandusky had volunteered to help coach the football team.

Today, Sandusky is charged with more than 50 counts related to sexual abuse over a 12-year period. According to the criminal charges, when he wasn't acting out his compulsions on the venerated main campus of Pennsylvania State University, he was doing so mostly in a basement bedroom of his home.

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And while the official allegations, so far, target only three people — Sandusky, along with the school's athletic director and a since-retired senior vice president, who are both charged with perjury and failure to report a 2002 sexual abuse complaint — an investigation by The Associated Press suggests that blame also rests on Penn State as an institution and the entrenched traditions of now-fired head football coach Joe Paterno.

In addition, the AP investigation, which included scores of interviews and a review of the limited number of available documents, also reveals new details in the Sandusky case: the special handling of a 1998 sexual abuse complaint by child welfare workers; a clash between investigators over what the evidence showed at that time; extraordinary retirement perks that gave Sandusky access to places on campus where he is accused of abusing children; a determination by a nearby county child-welfare agency that Sandusky sexually abused a boy in 2008 in a case that sparked the state criminal case; and a passionate defense of Paterno's role by his wife and her vigorous assertion that his university superiors are responsible for any mistakes in the handling of the 2002 abuse complaint.

It matters greatly what Penn State officials knew and how they reacted to sexual abuse allegations because failing to act could imperil the future of the university's athletic programs.

Under NCAA regulations, the overall ethical conduct of a college sports program is paramount. Administrations at all NCAA-member programs must exert "institutional control," meaning they must strictly adhere to the rules and have an appropriate level of oversight in place to detect and investigate violations.

Failure of institutional control can result in a range of sanctions, including a ban from participation in intercollegiate sports, ineligibility for lucrative bowl games, and a loss of athletic scholarships.

The NCAA, the Big Ten Conference and Penn State are each separately investigating whether the university violated any rules in its dealings with Sandusky.

In a statement, the Big Ten said the sex abuse scandal raised "significant concerns as to whether a concentration of power in a single individual or program may have threatened or eroded institutional control of intercollegiate athletics at Penn State."


The first known complaint made to authorities about Sandusky, who says he's innocent of all charges and faces a preliminary hearing Tuesday, came in a 1998 phone call to the Penn State police department. A mother was troubled after her 11-year-old boy told her he had showered naked with Sandusky on campus.

That complaint would trigger a separate review by Centre County's Children and Youth Services, the child protection agency charged with handling abuse cases in the State College area.

But it was the Penn State police department, which is overseen by a top university administrator, that would lead a more comprehensive criminal investigation.

Those two investigations also would represent the university's first known missed opportunity.

The woman's son would become known as Victim 6 in the state's current criminal case against Sandusky. Prosecutors say Sandusky lathered up the boy, bear-hugged him naked from behind and picked him up and put his head under the shower. Detectives say that later, with police secretly listening in, Sandusky told the boy's mother the joint shower had been a mistake, and blurted: "I wish I were dead."

When county officials heard Sandusky's name, they decided quickly to kick the case up to state child welfare investigators. Of course they knew Sandusky as a prominent Penn State defensive coach, and they also knew that his charity, The Second Mile, had a contract with the county that paid $47 each day per child to provide foster care.

"I think his affiliation with The Second Mile program precluded the county from doing it," said Jerry Lauro, the state Department of Public Welfare investigator who handled the complaint.

Together, Lauro and Ronald Schreffler, the lead detective from the university police, interviewed Sandusky about his shower with the 11-year-old. The grand jury report says Sandusky promised he would never shower with boys again.

Lauro eventually found no indication of abuse by Sandusky. "Boundary issues are one thing, but substantiated child abuse is another level," Lauro said.

The social services worker said he didn't have access to the criminal investigative file, which made an argument for charging Sandusky. Schreffler's still-sealed report runs about 100 pages.

Schreffler declined comment. The grand jury report that led to the first 40 charges against Sandusky on Nov. 5 cites extensively from his work.

Schreffler testified that his boss, then-campus police chief Thomas Harmon, told him to close his investigation, and the county prosecutor decided there would be no charges, for reasons that remain unknown today. Harmon served as an administrator under Gary Schultz, then Penn State's senior vice president for finance and business.

Schultz has been charged in relation to a 2002 sexual abuse complaint against Sandusky. In grand jury testimony, Schultz said he was aware of the 1998 complaint investigated by his police department but never asked to see the investigative report and didn't realize how lengthy it was.

Such seeming indifference runs throughout the grand jury documents as well as a civil lawsuit filed by an accuser not covered in the criminal case.

But Sandusky's lawyer, Joe Amendola, sees the extensive 1998 investigation as vindication of his client. "All these people looked into that and decided there wasn't enough to file criminal charges," he said.

Sandusky has argued that the 1998 complaint was a minor allegation that was determined not to be true. Amendola said Sandusky did not discuss that case with Paterno, Schultz or athletic director Tim Curley — the other official now charged in the 2002 allegation. Curley, now on leave, and Schultz both deny the criminal charges.

Still, Amendola said he believes university officials knew about the 1998 complaint, and that they agreed there was nothing to it. "The Penn State police department doesn't investigate something of that magnitude involving a Penn State, high-profile coach, who was still coaching, and not contact Penn State officials," he said.

The fact that university police ended their investigation without bringing charges, and that the state welfare agency found no indication of sexual abuse in the 1998 complaint, meant Sandusky could continue working with young boys at his charity, his summer football camps and at the nearby high school.