Cover Up

Joe Paterno’s Lying in Jerry Sandusky Abuse Case Further Taints His Legacy

Emails from the Penn State probe show JoePa helped decide not to report Jerry Sandusky to authorities—and why ‘liar’ should be added to his legacy, says Buzz Bissinger.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

Paterno is lucky to have died last January at the age of 85.

Otherwise, based on new information from a CNN story by Susan Candiotti, he would be facing possible indictment for perjury. Along with former Penn State University president Graham Spanier. Along with two high-ranking former Penn State officials who have already been indicted by the Pennsylvania attorney general on charges of lying to a state grand jury in the case of predatory animal Jerry Sandusky.

When told originally in February of 2001 that Sandusky had been seen with a child in a shower stall in the Penn State football locker room, Paterno, the ultimate Iron Man of Penn State, suddenly became weak in the knees, a scared and mousy bureaucrat. He subsequently told the grand jury that he passed the information up the line to his supposed superior, athletic director Tim Curley, and let the investigation take its course.

It never made sense.

Paterno ran Penn State. We are Penn State? Forget it. Try I am Penn State. He listened to no one, answered to no one. In 2004, when Spanier and the head of the board of trustees reportedly went to Paterno’s house and said it was time for him to retire, he threw them out. The Penn State trains ran on Joe’s schedule in the ridiculous name of football. Yes, he did give $4 million to the school, and no one should ever argue against philanthropy, but charity also is never entirely altruistic: it burnished the avuncular JoePa image, a man above reproach who would never hide or conceal or obfuscate. But the world of Penn State football revolved around Paterno. It seemed inconceivable that in a matter involving someone who had been a loyal assistant coach for 30 years, Paterno would simply step aside and trust the judgment of others, or that others would make a judgment without his input.

Now we know the apparent truth:

Based on emails that have been discovered as part of the investigation into the conduct of Penn State by former FBI director Louis Freeh, Paterno played a key role in Sandusky’s never being reported to authorities.

Sandusky may have retired in 1999, but he retained an office at Penn State. He still had keys to facilities. He was still a member of the Penn State football family, a membership for life in which acts of depravity seem to be ignored and the code of silence strictly enforced. Know all you want. Suspect all you want. But never tell.

As the CNN report shows, keeping the horrific secrets of Sandusky exactly that—secret—was apparently more important to Paterno than that Sandusky was straddling a 10-year-old child from behind with the obvious intent of fucking him.

In his grand jury appearance last year, Paterno testified that graduate assistant Mike McQueary had gone to his house in 2001 and told Paterno that he had seen Sandusky in a shower stall with a young boy. Paterno noted that McQueary was visibly upset and did not go into detail, but did relate to him that Sandusky “was doing something with the youngster. It was a sexual nature.”

The next question was as follows from Jonelle Eshbach of the attorney general’s office:

“You indicated that your report was made directly to Tim Curley. Do you know of that report being made to anyone else that was a university official?”

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No, because I figured that Tim would handle it appropriately. I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Mr. Curley and I thought he would look into it and handle it appropriately.”

In an interview with The Washington Post on Jan. 14 of this year, eight days before his death, Paterno reiterated the action he had taken. “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”

There is no other way to interpret his statements; he had no further involvement, which was shameful enough. But emails read to CNN convincingly indicate that Paterno was instrumental in the decision of Penn State officials not to report allegations against Sandusky to the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare. That would have been the protocol in cases of suspected sexual abuse of minors. That should have been the protocol. That was the protocol finally leading to Sandusky’s demise.

On Feb. 26, 2001, Curley reportedly wrote an email to Vice President Gary Schultz in which he said his plan was to talk to Sandusky and also contact the Department of Welfare.

But the plan changed.

Despite his obvious implication to the grand jury that he only talked to Curley once, in early February of 2001, Paterno talked to the then athletic director a second time on Feb. 26, 2001. Curley then reportedly wrote to Spanier the next day and said, “After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe … I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps.”

The Department of Welfare was never contacted. There was no attempt to locate the child who was later found by a jury to have been victimized by Sandusky. Perhaps because the emails show that the primary concern, the only concern, was making sure that Jerry was treated kindly. So he had a little problem with a young boy in the shower, straddling him from behind in what anyone would have construed as forced anal intercourse? Jerry Sandusky wasn’t a crisis: a football team that had gone 5–7 the season before was a crisis. What had happened to a 10-year-old boy wasn’t a tragedy; losing to Toledo at home on national television was a tragedy. The most important element of the Jerry Sandusky matter was to keep it mum.

So they did.

“There is a more humane and up front way to handle this,” Schultz reportedly wrote in an email.

“We want to assist the individual to get professional help,” Curley reportedly wrote.

“The only downside for us is if the message (to Sandusky) isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and then we become vulnerable for not having reported it,” Spanier reportedly wrote.

There were no emails from Paterno; according to family members he did not know how to use email. But as Curley’s email indicates, Paterno apparently still knew how to talk.

It is totally unfair to say that Penn State officials did nothing. They did tell Sandusky he could no longer bring “guests” on campus. There was no way of enforcing it of course, and the humaneness with Sandusky was so effective that he continued to sexually abuse children for another six years.

You can thank Curley for that. You can thank Schultz for that. You can thank Spanier for that. But most of all you can thank Paterno. He was the God of Happy Valley. People scurried and scrambled when he spoke, so you can bet it was he who was the primary driver behind the decision not to report Sandusky to authorities. It was he who on the basis of his own words in his grand jury testimony, gave the false impression that he had placed the matter in the hands of athletic director Curley and then walked away.

It is an ugly thing to trample on the dead. Just as ugly as using the cloak of his death to perpetuate the image of a man who we now know beyond all doubt never existed. He wasn't the moral center. He wasn't the avuncular JoePa. He wasn’t the man who simply didn’t do enough when confronted with a sickening allegation.

Add the word “liar” to his legacy.