Penn State’s former president faces trial Monday on charges that children were put at risk by how he responded to complaints about Jerry Sandusky more than 15 years ago, and two of his former top lieutenants who just pleaded guilty in the case could testify against him.
A Harrisburg jury will decide whether Graham Spanier’s handling of the Sandusky scandal amounted to the three felonies he stands accused of – two counts of endangering the welfare of children and a single conspiracy charge.
Spanier, 68, had spent 16 years as the powerful leader of the vast Penn State university system when a grand jury investigation produced child molestation charges against Sandusky in 2011, as well as allegations the school’s vice president for business and finance, Gary Schultz, and the athletic director, Tim Curley, had engaged in a criminal cover-up.
Spanier’s immediate response was to issue an emphatic defense of his two underlings, putting out a statement that expressed his unconditional support for them that predicted “the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately.”
Spanier was soon after pushed out of the presidency and agreed to a deal that gave him 18 months’ salary, a $1.5 million retirement payment, a $700,000 post-presidency sabbatical payment and five years of tenured faculty service at $600,000 annually, ending this coming November.
Sandusky, who spent decades as the football team’s defensive coach, was convicted in 2012 of child sexual abuse, after which a university-commissioned report from a team led by former FBI director Louis Freeh made the scathing conclusion that Spanier, Curley, Schultz and former head coach Joe Paterno had “concealed critical facts” about Sandusky’s abuse of children to avoid bad publicity. Paterno died of lung cancer in 2012.
In one of the many statements about the case he has made, Spanier told the board in a July 2012 letter that he did not recall a woman’s complaint in 1998 about Sandusky showering with her son, a matter that was investigated but no charges were filed. He also said another complaint, from a graduate assistant coach who said he saw Sandusky abusing a boy in a team shower in 2001, was described to him only as horseplay.
“At no time during my presidency did anyone ever report to me that Jerry Sandusky was observed abusing a child or youth or engaged in a sexual act with a child or youth,” Spanier wrote, words that he and his lawyers have echoed repeatedly.
A key piece of evidence is likely to be an email exchange the Freeh team obtained, in which the three high-ranking officials debated how they should handle the 2001 shower incident. Spanier gave his approval to having Curley tell Sandusky to get professional help or face a report to the state’s child welfare agency.
“The only downside for us is if the message isn’t `heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it,” Spanier replied. He called the plan “humane and a reasonable way to proceed.”
Spanier told The New Yorker in 2012 that he felt it was humane for Curley to “go the extra mile” by meeting with Sandusky to tell him he planned to disclose the incident to The Second Mile, a charity for at-risk youth founded by Sandusky where he met several victims.
“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,” Spanier told the magazine. “But I never, ever heard anything about child abuse or sexual abuse or my antennae raised up enough to even suspect that.”
A few months after that interview, state prosecutors filed additional counts against Curley and Schultz and for the first time charged Spanier with perjury, child endangerment, obstruction, failure to report suspected child abuse and conspiracy. It’s taken years to get to trial because the case became mired in a lengthy legal battle over the actions by the school’s then-general counsel, Cynthia Baldwin, when the administrators testified before the grand jury in 2011.
As a result, a Pennsylvania appeals court threw out many of the more serious charges against the three a year ago, and more recently the trial judge pared the case back even more.
For much of the past six years, the three men have appeared to be solidly together. Spanier testified in October at the civil case brought by Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant coach who witnessed the 2001 incident, that the arrests of Curley and Schultz were “an unbelievable injustice.” McQueary won a $12 million verdict.
The three appeared headed for trial together when Curley and Schultz agreed to plea deals. Sentencing has not been scheduled.
It’s not clear whether they will testify this week, as prosecutors and Spanier’s lawyers have declined to comment, citing an order from the judge.
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