The most senior officials at Penn State failed for more than a decade to take any steps to protect the children victimized by Jerry Sandusky, the longtime lieutenant to football coach Joe Paterno, according to an independent investigation of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the university last fall.
‘‘Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims,’’ Louis J. Freeh, a former federal judge and FBI director who oversaw the investigation, said Thursday. ‘‘The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.’’
The investigation, which took seven months and involved more than 400 interviews and the review of more than 3.5 million documents, accuses Paterno, the university’s former president, and others of deliberately hiding facts about Sandusky’s sexually predatory behavior.
‘‘The facts are the facts,’’ Freeh said in Philadelphia. ‘‘He was an integral part of the act to conceal.’’
One new and central finding of the investigation is that Paterno, who died in January, knew as far back as 1998 that there were concerns that Sandusky might be behaving inappropriately with children. It was then that campus police investigated a claim by a mother that her son had been molested by Sandusky in a shower at Penn State.
Paterno, through his family, insisted after Sandusky’s arrest that he never knew anything about the 1998 case. But Freeh’s report asserts that Paterno not only knew of the investigation but followed it closely. Local prosecutors ultimately decided not to charge Sandusky, and Paterno did nothing.
Paterno failed to take any action, ‘‘even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s.’’
The investigation’s findings will have significant ramifications — for Paterno’s legacy, for the university’s legal liability as it seeks to compensate Sandusky’s victims, and perhaps for the wider world of major college athletics.
Already, though, the fallout from the Sandusky scandal has been extraordinary, its effects felt in everything from the shake-up in the most senior ranks of the university to the football program’s ability to recruit the country’s most talented high school prospects to a growing wariness among parents about the relationships their children have with their sports coaches.
Sandusky last month was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse, including rape and sodomy, by a jury in Bellefonte, Pa. The jury found he had assaulted young boys at his home, on the Penn State campus, and at other locations over many years.
‘‘I can’t say that anything astonishes us anymore, but it’s pretty astonishing,’’ Michael J. Boni, a lawyer for one of Sandusky’s victims, said of the investigation’s findings. ‘‘I wouldn’t be surprised if these leaders face new criminal charges for failure to report what they knew to the authorities.’’
For Paterno, one of the most damning implications of the Freeh investigation involves the university’s handling of a 2001 report of Sandusky sexually attacking a 10-year-old boy in the football building’s shower.
A graduate assistant had witnessed the assault and reported in person to Paterno the next day. Paterno said he would figure out how to handle the alarming report and inform his superiors. The Freeh investigation suggests that the university’s senior administrators were prepared to report Sandusky to authorities, but that Paterno persuaded them to do otherwise.
After the university’s president, Graham Spanier, and athletic director, Tim Curley, decided to report Sandusky, the investigation asserted, ‘‘the only ‘known, intervening factor’ was a conversation between Curley and Paterno.
It was then decided the ‘‘humane’’ thing to do would be to speak to Sandusky and warn him not to bring children on campus any longer.
‘‘No such sentiments,’’ the investigation said of Paterno, Spanier, Schultz, and Curley, ‘‘were ever expressed by them for Sandusky’s victims.’’
Freeh singled out the reaction in 2000 of a group of janitors after one of them said he witnessed Sandusky abusing a boy in the locker room showers at the football building as indicative of the culture of the university. The janitors discussed what to do and the witness ultimately decided not to go to university officials, later saying he was afraid he would lose his job if he did so.
‘‘They were afraid to take on the football program,’’ Freeh said. ‘‘They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States. If that’s the culture on the bottom, then God help the culture at the top.’’
Paterno’s family released a statement Thursday saying it accepted criticism that Paterno should have done more, but argued that he was being judged with the benefit of hindsight.
“If Joe Paterno had understood what Sandusky was, a fear of bad publicity would not have factored into his actions,’’ the statement said.
The family added: ‘‘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.’’
On the Penn State campus in State College, Freeh’s news conference was watched by some on televisions at the student union. The investigation’s conclusions, especially about Paterno’s involvement, were jarring for some.
‘‘The conclusions could not be any more harsh,’’ said Russell Frank, a journalism professor. ‘‘It’s a very powerful indictment of the people in charge.’’
Freeh was named to head the investigation by the university’s board of trustees shortly after Sandusky was arrested in November.
‘‘No one is above scrutiny,’’ Kenneth Frazier, a trustee, said at the time that Freeh’s inquiry was announced. ‘‘He has complete rein to follow any lead, to look into every corner of the university to get to the bottom of what happened.’’
The Paterno family said in a statement that Paterno, before his death, had been eager to tell all he knew about the university’s dealings with Sandusky and had admitted to having failed to do more to stop Sandusky. But it lamented what it called the improper and misleading disclosure in recent weeks of aspects of Freeh’s findings.
On Thursday morning, before Freeh’s findings were released, Paterno’s son Jay appeared on the ‘‘Today’’ show.
‘‘This investigation is still one opinion, one piece of the puzzle,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ve never been afraid of the truth.’’
Joe Paterno, in a letter he had prepared but was not published before his death, asserted that whatever the failings in the Sandusky affair — his or the university’s — it did not constitute a ‘‘football scandal.’’
“Regardless of anyone’s opinion of my actions or the actions of the handful of administration officials in this matter, the fact is nothing alleged is an indictment of football or evidence that the spectacular collections of accomplishments by dedicated student-athletes should be in anyway tarnished,’’ Paterno said in the letter.