As someone who has been critical of what I have perceived as the media’s rush to judgment against Joe Paterno in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, I was very eager to hear the results of the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh. My primary concern through all of this is that the case against Paterno for knowingly protecting a pedophile had not yet been truly proven. If it was, then I would be the first to admit that Paterno’s legacy would be rightly shattered and that his statue at Penn State should be uprooted.
Now that the report has come out and I (unlike the media at Freeh’s press conference) have actually had time to read it, I will acknowledge that the report raises some very serious questions about Paterno’s role. I now think that it is “probable” that Paterno deserves some level of condemnation for how he handled the Sandusky situation.
However, despite what you have heard in the news media, there are also some very significant problems with the report itself and, at least at this point, there is still a whole lot more speculative smoke than actual evidentiary fire in its findings.
The most glaring omission in the report is that Freeh did speak to any of the primary witnesses in the case. Not Paterno. Not Tim Curley. Not Mike McQueary (whom he referred to as “McQuade” in the press conference). Not Jerry Sandusky.
How can any investigation possibly be considered remotely complete or come to any legitimate conclusions without even speaking to any of the most important witnesses?
How can we possibly fully evaluate Paterno’s actions if we don’t know exactly what Mike McQueary (who, it must be pointed out, misremembered the year he witnessed the episode in the shower, an incident for which there is still no actual victim) told him? How can we possibly understand fairly vague emails without even hearing from the guy who wrote them?
Secondly, Freeh seems to promise far more in his press release/conclusions than he actually delivers in real evidence. Most of the media of course, at best, only read the summary and not the actual report. Thanks to that, it appears that most people have no idea that the real evidence backing up Freeh’s conclusions is, given the strong language he uses, remarkably thin.
The key pieces of new evidence (and frankly, maybe the only significant ones) against Paterno are two emails cited on pages 48 and 49 of the report which Freeh concludes are “clear” proof that Paterno was fully in the loop on the 1998 investigation of Sandusky which resulted in no criminal charges.
There is no doubt that if Paterno really knew about the 1998 investigation then any defense of him falls apart like a house of cards. This is because if he knew about 1998 then he had no reason to give Sandusky any benefit of the doubt in 2001 and he actually had a significant incentive to cover up the McQueary episode because there would have been a history of inaction. His credibility would also be shot because he essentially testified to the Grand Jury that he had no knowledge of the investigation.
However, Freeh is grotesquely overstating his evidence.
A close examination of these two emails raises significant questions as to what they actually mean. The first email is from athletic director Curley to the university president with the subject line “Joe Paterno.” As far as we know, the only content of the email was “I have touched base with the coach. Keep us posted. Thanks.”
Based on this, Freeh concludes that because the email was sent after Curley knew of the investigation into Sandusky that Sandusky had to be the subject of their “touching base.” Even if this wasn’t a bit of an evidentiary leap (which it is), we have no idea what “touching base” really means and, again, Freeh has never even spoken to Curley to find out. The president didn’t even remember this email, which he referred to as a “vague reference with no individual named.”
The second email is just as problematic. In it Curley writes to the head of campus police, “anything new in this department? Coach is anxious to know where it stands.” Freeh writes, without any actual evidence that, “the reference to Coach is believed to be Paterno.” We are to assume that “is believed” really means “believed by Louis Freeh.”
Could “coach” be Paterno? Absolutely. But interestingly the subject line of the email (which Freeh uses in the first instance to substantiate that “coach” means Paterno) is “Jerry.” Why is it not plausible that “coach” there actually means Sandusky, who was still a coach at Penn State at the time? Freeh seems to completely forget that Sandusky was engaged in retirement negotiations at teh very same time and there there are many emails in his own record marked “Sandusky” which have nothing at all to do with the investigation. Is it not very plausible that this email had nothing at all to do with sexual abuse? If this were to be the case, this would dramatically change many of the presumptions on which the report bases its conclusions.
One of the many elements of the report which the media is completely missing (because they obviously haven’t bothered to actually read it) is that Freeh essentially exonerates Paterno on a very important point which has bothered many Paterno defenders since the beginning of this story.
The report seems to prove (much more conclusively than it does other elements) that Sandusky being told that he would never be the head coach at Penn State had nothing to do with any allegations of sexual abuse. In fact, Paterno told him this before the 1998 investigation even began and his own hand written notes make it clear that the reason was because Sandusky, ironically, refused to give up his position as the head of the Second Mile charity, which was the source of his victims. Unfortunately, it is being routinely reported today that the report indicates the Sandusky’s resignation was proof Paterno knew of the problem in 1998. In actuality, the exact opposite is true.
Similarly, much has been made of the previously leaked email from February 27th 2001 in which Curley seems to indicate a change in plans to not report Sandusky to higher authorities after having spoken to Paterno. Not yet mentioned in any media coverage that I have seen is that the report divulges (on page 63) the existence of a February 12th 2001 note in which Curley discusses with the head of campus police coming to the very same conclusion, well before any evidence of influence from Paterno.
Why does this not at least bring into question the real role Paterno had in that decision, especially when the “evidence” is based almost entirely on mind reading through vague emails?
Perhaps the strangest argument Freeh attempts to make is that Paterno’s response to McQueary (to whom Freeh has never spoken) is proof that Paterno was immediately in some sort of cover up mode because the head coach told McQueary, “Now we’ll see what we want to do.”
What is amazing about what a huge deal Freeh made about this in the report and at his press conference is that he acts as if there is a recording of that conversation and we have Paterno’s actual words (which are obviously incredibly important is a situation like this). But that is just not the case. All we have is the testimony of McQueary TEN years after the conversation took place! And again, this is the same guy who inexplicably got the YEAR of the actual incident wrong. How in the world can you possibly conclude anything significant based on such a tenuous recollection?
One of the most blatant errors in the report with regard to both facts as well as their interpretation comes with regard to the two Penn State janitors about whom Freeh spoke so glowingly at his press conference. Here Freeh exposes himself and his report to very credible charges of malpractice.
Freeh claims that two janitors saw something “horrific” in the Penn State locker room in 2000. He says that they didn’t report the episode because they were terrified of speaking of what they saw to Paterno because going up against the football program was like taking on the “President of the United States” and they feared being fired. Freeh then concludes that this fear proved that there was a “chilling effect” within the football program, which was, in it self, is evidence of a culture of corruption.
These assertions by Freeh are simply as laughable as they are inaccurate.
First of all, whether Freeh realizes it or not, his team has never spoken to the actual witness in the 2000 episode because the lone witness now has dementia. The other janitor who testified at trial did so under a hearsay exception and only told of what the other janitor told him. Secondly, neither janitor would have been reporting to Paterno. Thirdly, Sandusky was a former football coach at that time. Fourthly, Freeh seems to completely disregard the obvious reality that these janitors desperately need an explanation for why they didn’t report the episode and that their claiming “fear” of a now dead man (without a shred of evidence) should be looked at with great suspicion. Finally, it seems totally lost on Freeh that these janitors who didn’t report the episode at all are being treated by him as heroes while Paterno, who did at least report allegations which he didn’t even witness, is seen as a pedophile protector.
I want to make it clear that it is quite possible that Joe Paterno did indeed know more than he let on and enough to justify him doing more than he did to stop the monster that was Jerry Sandusky. It is even possible that he actively helped cover it up. But the truth is that the evidence that any of this happened is just not nearly as strong as the media or Louis Freeh are portraying it to be.
All I want is for the truth to come out. We may never get the full truth, but it is important that people understand that, while there may have been some important progress, we didn’t get nearly as much of it from the Freeh report as everyone seems to want to believe.