PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joe Paterno and other top Penn State officials buried child sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky more than a decade ago to avoid bad publicity, according to a scathing report Thursday that exposed a powerful "culture of reverence" for the football program and portrayed the Hall of Fame coach as more deeply involved in the scandal than previously thought.
The alleged cover-up by Paterno, then-university President Graham Spanier and two other Penn State administrators allowed Sandusky to prey on other boys for years, said the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who was hired by the university's trustees to investigate.
He called the officials' behavior "callous and shocking."
"Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State," Freeh said at a news conference in Philadelphia upon the release of the 267-page report. "The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized."
The findings of the $6.5 million, eight-month investigation into one of the biggest scandals in the history of college sports could further stain Paterno's reputation. The revered coach who emphasized integrity both on and off the field and ran what was considered one of the cleanest programs in sports died of lung cancer in January at age 85, months after he was summarily fired by the trustees.
Freeh said that while he regretted the damage the findings would do to Paterno's "terrific legacy," the coach "was an integral part of this active decision to conceal," and his firing was justified.
Asked whether the actions of the four officials amounted to a crime such as conspiracy or obstruction, Freeh said that would be a matter for a grand jury to decide.
In a statement, Paterno's family strongly denied he protected Sandusky for fear of bad publicity.
"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," the family said. "Sandusky was a great deceiver. He fooled everyone."
The findings could have consequences for the criminal case against Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and retired senior vice president Gary Schultz, who are awaiting trial on charges of failing to report abuse and lying to a grand jury. In addition, the Pennsylvania attorney general's office is still investigating the scandal, and others could be charged.
Sandusky, a former member of Paterno's coaching staff, is awaiting sentencing after being convicted last month of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.
Freeh and his team, which included lawyers and former law enforcement officials, interviewed more than 430 people and examined more than 3.5 million emails, handwritten notes and other documents. Paterno died before he could be interviewed but testified before a grand jury.
The investigation focused largely on the university officials' decision not to go to child-welfare authorities in 2001 after a coaching assistant told Paterno that he had seen Sandusky sexually abusing a boy in the locker room showers.
Paterno and the others gave various explanations for their decision, saying among other things that they misunderstood the allegations, that they did the best they could and that this was the "humane" way to handle the matter.
But the Freeh report said: "It is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university — Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley — repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from authorities, the university's board of trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large."
A number of other factors contributed to the decision to keep quiet, the report found, including "a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community."
Spreading the blame around, the report also said the trustees failed to exercise oversight and didn't inquire deeply into the matter when they finally learned of it.
Spanier's lawyers Thursday denied Spanier took part in a cover-up and said Freeh's conclusion "is simply not supported by the facts." Spanier was ousted along with Paterno four days after Sandusky's arrest last November.
Attorneys for Curley and Schultz said that the investigation was flawed and that their clients would prove their innocence in court. Curley lawyer Caroline Roberto called it a "lopsided document that leaves the majority of the story untold."
Freeh said officials had opportunities in 1998 and 2001 to step in.
In 1998, police investigated after a woman complained that her son had showered with Sandusky. The investigation did not result in charges. But the emails show Paterno clearly followed the 1998 case, Freeh said. University officials took no action at the time to limit Sandusky's access to campus.