Graham Spanier: Penn State’s Next Indictment?

Nine weeks after Jerry Sandusky’s conviction, ex–university president Graham Spanier remains untouched by the law. Diane Dimond on the curious timing of his recent media blitz.

08.24.12 8:45 AM ET

It is one of the biggest mysteries of the Penn State scandal: how has former university president Graham Spanier escaped criminal indictment in connection with the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse case? Two other former top school officials—ex-VP Gary Schultz and onetime athletic director Tim Curley—are facing trial on charges of failure to report suspected child abuse and lying to a grand jury. All three were singled out for scathing criticism in the Freeh report, the definitive investigation into the university’s handling of the Sandusky scandal, for their “concealment” of the football coach’s sordid conduct and for their “striking lack of empathy for child abuse victims.” Yet Spanier has so far remained untouched by the law. Now, nearly nine weeks after Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of sexually assaulting 10 boys, the silent Spanier has emerged from hiding for a media blitz.

Spanier’s salvo comes just as unconfirmed rumors are flying that an indictment for the ex-president is imminent. On Wednesday morning, Spanier’s lawyers staged a hastily called news conference in Philadelphia to personally and professionally blast the director of the independent probe, former FBI chief Louis Freeh, for what was termed a shoddy investigation.

Later that day The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin posted a lengthy Q and A with Spanier. In the interview transcript, Spanier insisted he had no recollection of a 1998 police investigation of Sandusky’s conduct with a boy and also that he never understood that a 2001 shower incident with Sandusky and another boy was sexual in nature. (“It was reported they were ‘horsing around’ in the shower,” he told Toobin.) Spanier also maintained that when called to testify to a grand jury in April 2011, he believed the probe had to do with the “horseplay” incident and was “stunned” to learn the panel was looking at Sandusky for possible child sodomy. This despite a front-page story published in a local paper weeks earlier—in March 2011—that revealed police were investigating Sandusky for sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy. Spanier’s claim to The New Yorker that he had done nothing wrong went largely unchallenged.

Later that same evening ABC’s Nightline ran the television exclusive of Spanier’s version of events. He repeated many of the same points to correspondent Josh Elliott and added that because he had been a victim of childhood abuse himself—physical abuse at the hands of his father, he said, that required several surgeries to correct—he had “never met anyone who had a higher level of awareness than I have” about the plight of children. He again stressed he was never given any reason to suspect Sandusky.

“He was a child predator who fooled a lot of people,” Spanier said. “Never in my time as president of Penn State did I ever, ever once receive a report from anyone that suggested that Jerry Sandusky was involved in any child abuse.”

One might expect that an educator with Spanier’s depth of knowledge on the subject of sexuality would be especially equipped to spot an active pedophile operating in his vicinity. Before he became an administrator, Spanier spent a career researching and writing about sex education and intimate interpersonal behaviors. His 1973 doctorate dissertation on sex education was titled “Sexual Socialization and Premarital Sexual Behavior.” In 1975 he coauthored a paper with the provocative title “Mate Swapping: Perceptions, Value Orientations, and Participation in a Midwestern Community.” In 1979 Spanier wrote the book Human Sexuality in a Changing Society.

But neither The New Yorker nor ABC News asked Spanier about his failure to reason that a grown man in a shower with a young boy might amount to something more than “horseplay.”

Nor did they ask about another case in which Spanier may have turned a deaf ear to warnings of a pedophile on the Penn State campus. Phoenix-based private detective Paul McLaughlin has said that more than a decade ago—in February 2002—he telephoned then-president Spanier to caution him about a Penn State professor who had abused him as a boy for about three years. Some of the abuse, he told Spanier, took place in the professor’s Penn State office.

“I offered evidence of this professor’s abuse in the form of tape-recorded admissions and informed [Spanier] that my only concern was to protect children and the community from this professor,” McLaughlin tells The Daily Beast. “Spanier’s response? He threatened to have me arrested ... [He] called my accusations ‘hearsay,’ praised the professor’s reputation, and treated my report to him as a blackmail or an extortion attempt.”

At the time, the accused professor was considered one of the nation’s leading experts on autism in children. McLaughlin says he was motivated by the worry that the professor might still have easy access to underage boys—boys who might have difficulty articulating sexual abuse.

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The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office and the state police had already told the private detective there was nothing they could do, as the statute of limitations on his complaint had elapsed. Working from his home in Phoenix, McLaughlin said he had already tried to warn the Penn State human-resources department as well as a faculty dean, but no one would listen.

“I was kind of like a drowning man trying to clutch onto a log or some kind of life preserver,” McLaughlin remembers of the day he finally called the president’s office at PSU. “To think of how many children had been abused since me! I was in full panic mode when I called Spanier.” As he was getting the brushoff, McLaughlin said, he offered to send Spanier the professor’s taped confession so he could hear for himself the man admitting to past abuse. McLaughlin said he was dismissively told, “Don’t bother,” before Spanier hung up.

“My opinion is that Spanier was more concerned with how my report would reflect on him rather than discovering and removing a serious threat to children,” McLaughlin concluded.

In 2005, after another victim came forward to buttress McLaughlin’s claims, the professor and two other men were indicted on multiple counts of child sexual abuse in Maryland. The case was also featured on the television program America’s Most Wanted twice. Ultimately the charges against the professor were dismissed. That professor, who is still employed by Penn State, has denied the allegations.

Spanier, now 64, was widely seen as a hands-on and effective administrator, intimately involved in the university’s day-to-day activities. While he has forcefully denied having any knowledge of Sandusky’s sexual activities with young boys, contemporaneous email traffic discovered and published in the Freeh report seems to dispute that.

In a February 2001 email thread uncovered by Freeh’s team, Spanier appears to sign off on the idea not to contact outside law enforcement after assistant coach Michael McQueary reported seeing Sandusky engaged in sexual activity with an unidentified boy in a school shower.

“This approach is acceptable to me,” Spanier wrote to Schultz and Curley. “The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed.” Nowhere in the emails do any of the adults involved seek to discover the identity of the prepubescent boy.

Spanier told ABC News he didn’t specifically remember writing that email. To The New Yorker he said, “I think what many people wanted to read into it was that it was humane for us not to turn him in for being a known child predator. But I never, ever heard anything about child abuse.” He said he used the word “humane” to describe the thoughtful way Curley had handled speaking to Sandusky about the horseplay incident.

It is anticipated that if there are any more Sandusky-related grand-jury indictments, Spanier’s name could be among them. If and when he goes to trial, it is a certainty that the prosecution will try to dissect Spanier’s character and past controversies for the jury. Many observers see parts of the career educator’s history as low-hanging fruit for the Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney’s Office, eager to add to the impressive 45 counts of guilty it won against Sandusky in June.

A clever prosecutor could raise doubts in a juror’s mind about how someone so steeped in research and writing about human relations and sexuality could remain unsuspicious about a grown man who surrounded himself with young boys from his Second Mile charity and drew complaints about “horseplay” in a campus shower. If private detective McLaughlin is brought in as a witness, Spanier could be painted as a man who put his own reputation and that of Penn State’s above the safety of the community’s children.

Also waiting in the wings, itching to possibly testify against Spanier, is former Pennsylvania legislator John Lawless. As a former member of the state’s House Appropriations Committee, Lawless once led an effort to withhold state funds from PSU after complaints that the school was sanctioning sex-oriented events on campus. Specifically cited at the hearing was the November 2000 “C festival” (designed to reclaim a derogatory word for a woman’s body part) and the Womyn’s Sex Faire held in February 2001.

Lawless, a state legislator for six terms, told The Daily Beast he personally attended the Sex Faire and found it so shocking, he videotaped part of his visit.

“I got contacted by several students complaining about why their fees were being used to fund a sex fair,” he said. Among other things, Lawless said, “$12,000 went to two women from Washington State to come demonstrate how to perform oral sex.” Lawless said he found the fair punctuated with games like Orgasm Bingo, Pin the Clitoris on the Vulva, and the Tent of Consent.

“I’m not some right-wing nut or a prude,” the former legislator said. “But, come on! They set up this tent right outside the dormitory ... with a bucket of condoms at the door. Five people went in at a time ... The purpose of the tent was to show that if you used a condom and had consent, you could do anything you wanted.”

A featured speaker at the Sex Faire was Patrick Califia-Rice, a transgender man who has advocated sex between adults and children on the website of the pedophile-advocacy group NAMBLA (the North American Man-Boy Love Association).

At the Feb. 28, 2001, committee hearing, Spanier was asked directly if he thought the Sex Faire was wrong or immoral. The PSU president apologized for certain parts of the event, but maintained that the university was committed to what he termed “free speech.” He added in pure Clintonesque style, “It depends on what your definition of immoral is.”

Law-enforcement sources confirm that the Sandusky investigation remains open. And in Pennsylvania, the law is clear about who is mandated by law to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement. The list includes anyone who is a “staff member of public or private agencies, institutions and facilities ... members of a medical or other public or private institutions (or) school.”

That would certainly include Graham Spanier, who before he resigned in November 2011 held the office of Pennsylvania State University president for more than a decade and a half.