At the request of the shell-shocked board of trustees of Pennsylvania State University, who also promised full independence to his team of investigators, former FBI director Louis Freeh spent more than six months interviewing hundreds of people associated with the school and combing through more than 3.5 million emails, documents and handwritten meeting notes.
The scope of his investigation was ascertaining whether university officials failed in their handling of accusations of child sex abuse more than a decade ago against a football coach, Jerry Sandusky. He was convicted on 45 out of 48 counts in June and faces a maximum prison sentence of 442 years. At least two of his prepubescent male victims were abused after the 2001 allegations under investigation.
Freeh’s final report, published this month, is a damning 162-page chronicle of a culture of concealment among the highest officials — including legendary Head Coach Joe Paterno — and concern above all for the public image of the school and its powerful football program.
“Our most saddening and sobering finding,” Freeh said, “is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State.”
“Penn State’s ‘Tone at the Top’ for transparency, compliance, police reporting and child protection was completely wrong, as shown by the inaction and concealment on the part of its most senior leaders, and followed by those at the bottom of the university’s pyramid of power,” Freeh said.
Details in Freeh’s report bear striking similarities to those in the multimillion-dollar, years-long study of clerical sex abuse published in recent years by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the request of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. What they both record is not only the sinfulness of individuals but also a destructive culture of hubris, exaggerated commitment to the institution’s public perception, and lack of accountability of some of those in leadership.
What the Freeh report also tragically records is that even family men with children of their own at home — not just celibate clerics — will stand tranquilly by in the face of suffering of children they have a direct duty to protect.
Penn State is now putting in place a host of new policies suggested by Freeh. Some of the bigger ones are those that the Catholic Church in the United States adopted a decade ago in response to the abuse crisis: background checks for personnel (more than 2.2 million have already been performed for Catholic seminarians, priests, employees and volunteers); safe environment training for youth (which more than 4.8 million Catholic school and religious education students have already received), and creation of new senior positions specifically to monitor compliance with the safe environment policies.
Recent reports of rampant sexual abuse of children by teachers in southern California public schools, to take just one example, show that many American institutions have yet to take this scourge seriously and implement similar policies.
We hope one silver lining of Penn State’s scandal — and the growing public outrage at such disregard for children’s protection — is that other institutions make an honest assessment of their own internal cultures. And we hope that it prompts Catholics to stand firm to the Church’s new policies and remain vigilant. As the bishops’ National Review Board said in June, “While the current trend shows a decrease in clergy sexual abuse, we must never let our guard down.”
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.