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Resolution? Spanier verdict instead stirs more division

Former Penn State University president Graham Spanier was convicted of one count of child endangerment.
Former Penn State University president Graham Spanier was convicted of one count of child endangerment.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

To many, the trial of former Pennsylvania State University president Graham B. Spanier was supposed to be the last chapter in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, finally resolving the issue of whether the school and leaders shared some blame.

But here's what happened in the nine days since Spanier's child-endangerment conviction:

A statement by long-silent Louis Freeh on the case stirred Twitter critics. Two Spanier jurors spoke out, one calling the verdict a mistake. Defenders of Spanier and the late football coach Joe Paterno used the jury's split decision to double down on their support. A stack of still-pending civil cases pivoted on the news. And Spanier's lawyer promised an appeal.

Even Sandusky's victims weren't spared from the fray.

"Running out of sympathy for 35 yr old, so-called victims with 7 digit net worth," Penn State alumni trustee Al Lord told the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, referring to the  millions the school has paid in settlements.

Together, the message was clear.

"It's not the end of the story," Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the Washington-based American Council on Education, who has closely watched the case roil the campus since 2011, said of the verdict, "because there continue to be discussions about who knew what, when events took place, and what was said at events that probably, at the end of the day, are unanswerable."

To Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center, which advocates for proper reporting of campus crime, the misdemeanor endangerment convictions of Spanier and two aides, ex-athletic director Tim Curley and ex-vice president Gary Schultz, sent a decisive message.

"It's very clear ... ," she said, "that they could have done more."

Among the more surprising turns in the aftermath was the public emergence of Freeh, the former FBI director who had been largely out of the spotlight since his scathing 2012 investigative report that faulted Spanier, Curley, Schultz, and Paterno as covering up Sandusky's sex attacks on boys.

Issued hours after Spanier's conviction -- and after Curley and Schultz had pleaded guilty to a similar charge -- Freeh's statement rang like a boast of vindication.

"Today, they are convicted criminals," he wrote. "And Joe Paterno's once iconic legacy is forever marred by his own decision to do nothing when he had the chance to make a real difference."

The statement was so unusual -- in it, he also called for current Penn State president Eric Barron to step down, even  though Barron wasn't at the school when the scandal broke -- that some news outlets at first questioned its authenticity.

Ira Lubert, chairman of Penn State's board of trustees, defended Barron.

"President Barron has led the creation of a model ethics and compliance program to protect and support the university community," Lubert said. "He has my full support..."

Freeh's swagger not only drew social-media push-back from Penn State faithful who for years have vilified him, it inflamed  alumni-elected trustees who saw the Spanier verdict as a victory because jurors cleared him of more serious felony endangerment and conspiracy counts.

"There was no such conspiracy," trustee Bill Oldsey said.

They also challenged Freeh's latest attack on Paterno, pointing to Curley's testimony at Spanier's trial.

The former athletic director had been called by prosecutors, ostensibly to help convince jurors that the three men acted in concert. But Curley testified that he alone suggested to Spanier and Schultz that they not alert state welfare authorities after learning from Paterno that assistant coach Mike McQueary saw Sandusky showering with a boy on campus after hours. Curley did not say he was influenced by Paterno.

"Tim said very clearly on the stand he made the decision," said trustee Barb Doran, who attended the Spanier trial. "Joe Paterno was vindicated, and that's big."

She's one of nine alumni trustees on the 38-member board. As a group, they hold Freeh primarily responsible for what they see as the false narrative of a university cover-up. Years later, they still are poring over thousands of pages of Freeh's investigative materials, for which they fought in court to gain access, and hope to make public the flaws.

Meanwhile, the former FBI director's  conclusions about Spanier, Paterno, and the other administrators have become cornerstones of other legal battles still pending -- all of which are likely to pick up steam because of the convictions.

Spanier is suing the former FBI director in Centre County court for libel and defamation, alleging that Freeh's report falsely made him a scapegoat. The longtime president is also suing Penn State for breach of contract, and the school seeks the repayment of millions of dollars it paid its former president.

Paterno's estate is warring in court with the NCAA, which relied on Freeh's finding in assessing  crippling sanctions it imposed on Penn State in 2012, some of which have since been rolled back.

The jury's verdict against Spanier will drastically change the terrain for the three suits, said George Bochetto, a Center City lawyer whose practice includes defamation and libel cases.

"It hurts all those cases, absolutely, positively," he said.

In a statement after the verdict, the university acknowledged Sandusky's victims and noted that the convictions reflected "a profound failure of leadership."

Former Penn State board member David R. Jones said he stands by the board's decision to oust Spanier  in 2011 because of that faulty leadership.

Even if Spanier's conviction is reversed  on appeal, it would not discredit that decision, which was never based on criminality, said Jones, a retired New York Times editor who serves as an emeritus trustee.

In the years since, Penn State in many ways has moved beyond the scandal, hiring an officer to ensure compliance with the federal crime-reporting law, training thousands of employees on the law, instituting programs to fight sexual assault and misconduct, creating new positions focused on the issue, overhauling its board governance, and establishing a hotline.

Donations remain up, as does enrollment.

Barron said in a statement that communications to the university about the scandal have decreased steadily over the last two years.

"As I travel and meet with faculty, alumni and supporters, and especially students, most  have expressed a hope that the Sandusky-related issues are coming to an end and that we can focus fully on our educational mission," he said.

Though strong feelings around the case make it likely that some issues will remain, Barron said: "The pleas and verdict bring a measure of closure."

Current students weren't even enrolled when Sandusky was charged in November 2011. Many haven't followed the scandal but live in its long shadow.

"I know some people are disappointed with the result and others are probably satisfied or want even more punishment for him and his colleagues," said senior Terry Ford, student body president. "My only hope is that the university community can come together  ...  and refocus our attention on what our core mission is: Teaching, research, and service."

But lawyer Tom Kline, who represented the sole Sandusky victim who testified at Spanier's trial, said Penn State likely will be living with ramifications for years to come.

"So long as there is a perpetuation of any remaining unresolved claims and issues," he said, "Penn State will be tragically and unfortunately mired in this past tragedy."