In August 2012, the conservative filmmaker John Ziegler released a short animated film meant to demonstrate the absurdity of investigator Louis Freeh’s claim—issued in his damning July 2012 report on Penn State—that Joe Paterno had actively concealed reports of an assault Jerry Sandusky was seen committing a decade earlier. The film was produced using a crude DIY animation toolkit; because of its goofy renderings of Paterno and others, it proved too distracting to take seriously.
Yesterday, the Paterno family released its own rebuttal of the Freeh report, a 238-page document called “The Rush to Injustice Regarding Joe Paterno.” Compiled by the family’s Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Wick Sollers, it features all the trappings of an impressive investigation: official letterhead, copious footnotes, and genuinely expert analysis. Besides Sollers’s introductory findings, the report is divided into three sections, each written by a different person. The most substantial portion belongs to former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
Needless to say, the Sollers report is more thorough and less amateurish than Ziegler’s paranoid, All-Caps-Style film (and subsequent work). Yet many of its claims mirror his exactly. For example, both argue that Paterno simply wasn’t the type to shy away from bad publicity, as he had once allowed a quarterback to play in the face of criminal charges. They also both question whether the “coach” referred to in a series of 1998 emails (one of them bearing the header “Joe Paterno”) was really Joe Paterno. Since the emails cite a Penn State coach anxious about an investigation Jerry Sandusky was not yet aware of, it seems unlikely they are referring to Sandusky, as the report suggests.
Still, there remains a key difference between Sollers’ report and the various websites and films put out by freelance Paterno defenders like John Ziegler. Where the latter argue that Paterno was the victim of various plots—hatched by the media, the Penn State Board of Trustees, Louis Freeh, and others—Sollers and co. merely focus on the credibility of Freeh’s claims. And in doing so, they actually identify some weaknesses in Freeh’s report. But because their charge was not to defend Paterno, but to critique Freeh, many of those criticisms do nothing to exonerate the former Penn State football coach.
For example, Thornburgh compiled a laundry list of minor complaints, including: typographical errors, over-reliance upon anonymous sources, failure to list sources not interviewed, failure to differentiate between “interviews conducted” and “witnesses interviewed,” holding a press conference only an hour after the release of his report, and not identifying the flaws inherent in all Grand Jury presentments. He also takes Freeh to task for not interviewing Joe Paterno, and now-indicted PSU officials Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, even though all three repeatedly declined interviews with him. Same with graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who then-Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly asked Freeh not to speak with.
Other critiques bear more weight. Freeh, for example, didn’t make it clear that all PSU emails prior to 2004 were erased, opening up the possibility that some important messages pertaining to the 1998 and 2001 Jerry Sandusky incidents couldn’t be taken into account. (The ones he did uncover had been saved by former PSU Vice President Gary Schultz.) Freeh also seems to read far too much into a 1999 handwritten note in which Paterno expressed concerns about Sandusky bringing Second Mile kids into PSU facilities for “liability” reasons. Freeh assumes this refers to sexual abuse—meaning, Paterno knew about the ’98 investigation into Sandusky—where it could just as plausibly refer to personal injury.
Sollers and co.’s ability to critique Freeh without really addressing Paterno’s complicity in the Sandusky scandal extends to the heart of the report as well, namely its claim that “there is no evidence that Joe Paterno deliberately covered up known incidents of child molestation by Jerry Sandusky to protect Penn State football or for any other reason.” Technically, the report is on solid ground here. Though circumstantial evidence would suggest Paterno was behind the decision not to report the 2001 incident to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (Athletic Director Tim Curley said in an email he was planning on doing so until meeting with Paterno), that’s impossible to prove. Same goes for the 1998 incident, news of which Paterno did not appear to actively stifle.
But that’s all semantics. Whether Paterno was truly engaged in a calculated cover-up isn’t really material to his legacy. Nor is Sollers’ dutiful assertion that Paterno did all that was legally required of him after he learned of the 2001 incident. The Paterno case was tragic not for the actions the coach took, but for the ones he didn’t. Even if one accepts the new report’s suggestion that Paterno in fact had no knowledge of the 1998 incident (again, based off the “coach” emails), it’s beyond a doubt that Paterno knew Sandusky was doing something sexual with a boy in the Penn State locker room in 2001, and did nothing but tell his boss and leave it at that. Paterno was lionized for his leadership; one would have expected more from him than mealy-mouthed excuses about chain of command.
The conclusion of the report is comprised mostly of findings by former FBI sex crimes investigator Jim Clemente, and Johns Hopkins physician Fred Berlin, an expert on child sex abuse. Both make the case that just as Sandusky groomed his victims, he also groomed Paterno. As Clemente writes:
The man Paterno thought he knew through thousands of interactions over decades working with him as a brilliant defensive coach, a loving husband and father, a devoutly religious man, a mentor to disadvantaged kids, an altruist, a teetotaler who looked down on those who drank alcohol, a selfless advocate for disenfranchised youth, a long time colleague, a compassionate advocate for players, and a “goofy” prankster, could not possibly be a “monster predator.”
With this in mind, the authors of the report don’t seem to grasp the irony of touting Paterno’s firm principles and love of family to argue he wasn’t capable of wrongdoing, as they do repeatedly. (“Paterno’s legacy is not just wins and losses, or national championships, or even promoting Penn State academics and building a new library,” Sollers writes.) After spilling considerable ink on the sad fact that some people—child molesters, in this case—aren’t what they seem, it’s remarkable that the report’s authors use Paterno’s past behavior as evidence in his defense.