Spanier trial could shed light on Penn State's culpability

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Former Penn State president Graham Spanier exits the Dauphin County Courthouse on July 29, 2013, in Harrisburg.

After more than five years and nearly a dozen separate investigations, there seemed little left to be revealed about Jerry Sandusky and his serial sex abuse of children.

That abruptly changed in about an hour last week in Harrisburg.

The unexpected guilty pleas to child-endangerment charges by two former Pennsylvania State University officials reopened the door to a long-unresolved and oft-debated question: When did university leaders know about the former assistant coach's predatory behavior and what did they do — or fail to do — about it?

And this week Tim Curley, the former athletic director, and Gary Schultz, a onetime Penn State vice president, could provide answers.

Both men said little during or after their Monday hearing in Dauphin County Court before senior Judge John Boccabella. Their plea documents were sealed.

But Curley and Schultz are likely to return to Harrisburg as early as Monday as witnesses in the trial of the lone remaining, and most prominent, defendant: Graham B. Spanier, their boss and former president of the state’s flagship university.

Spanier, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence, also intends to take the stand, according to sources close to him. 

Prosecutors plan to lay out for jurors what by now has become a familiar assertion: that in 1998 and again in 2001, the three men learned of accusations that Sandusky had sexually assaulted boys in showers, but failed to take sufficient steps to alert authorities or the public. Schultz and Curley acknowledged as much in their pleas. 

Friends of Spanier, now 68, say that prosecutors offered him a deal like the one the others took in exchange for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor endangerment count — but that he rejected it.

As recently as Thursday, Spanier confidant and Penn State trustee Al Lord said, the former president told him: “I’d rather go to jail for telling the truth than admit to a lie and say I did something I didn’t do.”

(Spanier’s lawyers, Samuel Silver and Bruce Merenstein, declined to comment, as did the Attorney General’s Office.)

According to Lord, Spanier remained confident, even while recognizing the trial will undoubtedly shift an unwanted spotlight back on Penn State.

“His anxiety level is high,” Lord said. “But at the same time, he’s pretty excited about the chance to tell his side of the story and get this done.”

Spanier, a childhood victim of physical abuse at the hands of his father, has repeatedly insisted he did nothing wrong. 

“It is unfathomable and illogical,” he wrote in a 2012 letter to Penn State’s trustees, “to think that a respected family sociologist and family therapist, someone who personally experienced massive and persistent abuse as a child … would have knowingly turned a blind eye to any report of child abuse or predatory sexual acts directed at children.”

An acquittal would offer long-awaited vindication to those in the Penn State community who have felt for years that the university was unfairly maligned by the scandal and that top administrators failed to defend its reputation from specious allegations while the case dragged on.

A conviction would deal another blow to an institution still reeling from the fallout of Sandusky’s serial sex abuse.

The scandal cost Spanier his job and also led to the ouster of one of Penn State’s most beloved figures — iconic football coach Joe Paterno. It has cost the university about a quarter billion dollars since 2011, including at least $93 million paid to settle claims from 33 Sandusky victims, $60 million in NCAA fines, and $14 million spent to fund the legal defense of Spanier, Curley, and Schultz.

That total also includes the $12 million a Centre County court ordered the university to pay former assistant coach Mike McQueary — who said he told administrators about Sandusky’s 2001 shower assault — in a whistle-blower and defamation case.

Spanier testified at McQueary’s civil trial last year.

“This was an unbelievable injustice,” he said at the time, testifying about the charges against Curley and Schultz, “that these two guys, who are like Boy Scouts, would be charged with a crime.”

McQueary, during his own stints on the witness stand in several Sandusky related proceedings, has repeatedly asserted that after witnessing Sandusky’s shower assault he made clear to Paterno, Curley, and Schultz that what he had seen was “way over the line and extremely sexual.”

But while testifying before the grand jury in 2011, Curley and Schultz maintained that McQueary failed to convey the seriousness of the incident, leaving both under the impression that he had merely witnessed questionable “horseplay.” They also testified that that was how they later described the incident to Spanier.

Prosecutors in Spanier’s case say they have evidence to suggest otherwise — namely, 2001 emails that suggest Spanier and his fellow administrators at least considered going to police to report what McQueary saw.

They ultimately rejected the idea, opting instead to bar Sandusky from bringing children on campus, to urge him to submit to counseling, and to inform his children’s charity, the Second Mile, of the allegations.

“The only downside for us is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon,” Spanier wrote, signing off on the decision. “We then become vulnerable for not having reported it.”

In court filings leading up to the trial, Spanier’s lawyers have hinted at a trial strategy that will aim to shift the focus away from any moral obligation he may have had to deal with Sandusky. Instead, the defense has zeroed in on a limited view of what the former president was required to do under the law at the time.

State law in 2001 bound only people who regularly encountered children through their jobs — such as teachers, doctors, police officers — to report suspected child abuse. It wasn’t until 2006 that the statute was broadened to include supervisors who oversaw employees in those roles. 

Prosecutors, however, maintain a cover-up lasted well beyond the point when the law was changed.

“They made a choice, and each and every day they engaged in conduct that furthered that choice,” Chief Deputy Attorney General Laura Ann Ditka wrote in a court filing this year.

What jurors make of their arguments could help shape the future legal landscape on just how far supervisors can be held criminally liable for failing to pass on abuse reports from their subordinates.

“This is one of those situations that will potentially prove precedent-setting,” said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County, who also noted the many improvements lawmakers have already made to Pennsylvania’s child-abuse reporting laws in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. “So in some ways the lessons to be learned have already been learned and are in place, hopefully protecting kids better than five years ago, a decade ago, two decades ago.”

In many ways, Penn State has succeeded in moving past Sandusky.

But Lord, the trustee, said he was proud of Spanier for continuing to fight.

“I think he’s innocent,” said Lord. “I think the other guys are innocent, too … but they felt they couldn’t run the risk of an arbitrary jury.”

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