In 1998, more than 13 years before Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually assaulting 10 boys, Jerry Lauro of the state Department of Public Welfare was summoned to investigate a claim that the Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach had sexually abused an 11-year-old boy he showered with in a locker room.

But after investigating, Lauro said, he closed the case, lacking substantial evidence that Sandusky had abused the boy sexually. Sandusky has now been charged in the very incident Lauro investigated.

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"It didn't meet the criteria," Lauro said. "If I really thought there were any child abuse . . . I definitely would have indicated it."

The DPW inquiry was started in the 1998 case because the boy was involved with the Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded, which ran a DPW-licensed foster-care agency and programs for at-risk youth.

Under the state's Child Protective Services Law, social workers such as Lauro can "indicate" someone as a perpetrator of child sexual abuse. The process is independent of criminal prosecution, and no charges are required for the person to be flagged as someone to be barred from work that puts him in contact with children. The determination is not made public, but the status is made known to employers who perform criminal background checks on potential employees or volunteers.

Sandusky, who retired a year after the alleged 1998 incident, would have been barred from coaching youth football. A determination also would have jeopardized DPW licenses for the Second Mile. Lauro said he would have worked with the organization to ensure that even children not served through the DPW-licensed foster-care agency were protected.

"I'm sure the Second Mile program would have been notified if he was indicated," he said. "We wouldn't have wanted him to be around children if he was a child abuser."

Lauro's decision has been questioned by other child welfare experts, who that Sandusky's behavior falls within the state's definition of child sexual abuse.

But the only remnants of Lauro's investigation are his recollection; any records associated with the probe would not be public and were purged from the system a year and four months after the case was closed, in accordance with state law.

The department, which also licenses social-service agencies, conducted annual inspections on Sandusky's charity from 1982 to present pursuant to two licenses it held as a foster-care agency and social-services agency. The inspection reports show only a sprinkling of violations.

Lauro, who now works for a private social-service agency in Harrisburg, said he knew Sandusky had showered with the boy. The boy's mother had reported that to police in 1998, and the boy corroborated that part of the story.

But Lauro says he does not recall whether the boy told him Sandusky had "bear-hugged" him in the shower, which he later told the grand jury.

On June 1, 1998, Lauro and Detective Ronald Shreffler of the university police department tracked Sandusky down in a weight room at Penn State. He recalled Sandusky as "a quiet fellow."

"He wasn't really talkative or outgoing," he said.

Lauro said Sandusky admitted showering with the child and said he felt remorseful about it. Lauro said his recollection of the rest of the conversation was sketchy. He said he could not, for example, recall whether Sandusky admitted hugging the child in the shower, though the grand jury presentment indicates that is what he said.

"The only thing he admitted to me and to the detective at that time was that he showered with the kid but nothing happened," he said. "He said something to the effect that, 'Maybe I shouldn't have done it.' "

Lauro said he classified the incident as "a boundary issue" - something Sandusky should not have done, but not child sexual abuse.

"If I would have thought it was anything more than a boundary issue, I would have substantiated the case," he said.

Under state law, Lauro would have had to find "substantial evidence" of child sexual abuse to indicate Sandusky. For child welfare investigators, child sexual abuse is classified as anything described in criminal statutes as such.

University police also invited Lauro to eavesdrop on a conversation between the boy's mother and Sandusky. He declined and asked Shreffler to tell him what he learned. He said Shreffler told him investigators extracted nothing new from the conversation. So university police closed their case, and Lauro followed suit.

But Lauro said he was not privy to the entire conversation police listened in on. He said he did not know that the boy's mother asked Sandusky whether his private parts touched the boy and that Sandusky had responded, "I don't think so . . . maybe."

Lauro could not say with certainty whether that would have been enough. It would depend, he said, on context.

"I don't recall him ever telling me that. It could have changed my thinking. I could have dug around and found something else," he said.

Others who have worked in child welfare have said Sandusky's showering with the child - even without contact - was enough to indicate a case. Child welfare workers can, and frequently do, indicate a case even if a prosecutor declines to pursue it.

That's "admission right there," said Larry Breitenstein, a former director of the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau and a professor of social work at Slippery Rock University. A child welfare worker can indicate a case if the suspected perpetrator confesses to abuse. "Most people in child welfare would say that would meet the definition," Breitenstein said.

Breitenstein acknowledged that investigating suspected child abuse is difficult. Welfare workers occasionally close cases in which they believe abuse is occurring because the suspected abuse may not meet the legal definition. They also want to make sure they are protecting children, but they do not want to substantiate bogus claims because doing so can have severe consequences for the target of the investigation.

"You really have to be diligent in trying to keep those two things in focus," he said.

Lauro said he believed he struck that balance. The case was far from clear cut, but he did not think it met the definition of sexual abuse.

"I do remember I didn't feel real good" at the conclusion of the investigation, he said. "But you have to follow your protocols."

Contact Moriah Balingit at 412-263-2533 or mbalingit@post-gazette.com.