The Freeh Report, Jerry Sandusky, Empathy and Penn State

Reading through former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s deep report into the culture and decision-making at Penn State that allowed former football coach Jerry Sandusky to go unpunished for so long, I was struck by the way the report was framed. “The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel,” the report says, “is the total and consistent disregard by the most sernior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” There’s no question that compliance with the law and with Penn State regulations were major issues in Sandusky’s case, but there’s something powerful about framing the problem in terms of empathy. There’s an extent to which empathy requires more, both emotionally and morally, than mere compliance. And throughout the report, there are small details that illustrate how empathy flowed up the hierarchy at Penn State, while it was consistently denied to people who were less powerful.

When Joe Paterno, Sandusky’s superior and mentor, was fired from his position as Penn State’s head football coach, there were major protests at Penn State on the grounds that Paterno, a Penn State legend, had been treated callously and unfairly. So it’s interesting to see little incidencies of Paterno’s own lack of empathy in the report. When Mike McQueary, who witnessed Sandusky raping a child in the Penn State locker room, called Paterno to see if he could speak with him about what he’d seen, “McQueary recalled Paterno said he did not have a job for McQueary so ‘if that’s what it’s about, don’t bother coming over,’” an unpleasant little aside. In the timeline of Sandusky’s tenure at Penn State, the one item notes that “Paterno reports the incident to [then-Athletic Director Timothy] Curley and [then-Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary] Schultz on Sunday, February 11 as Paterno did not ‘want to interfere with their weekends.’”

Even though Sandusky was the subject of serious accusations, the report documents many cases where authorities appear invested less in determining his guilt or innocence than in his comfort. When John Seasock, a counselor who met with one of Sandusky’s victims, made his report, he suggested a conversation with Sandusky but noted that “The intent of the conversation with Mr. Sandusky is not to cast dispersion (sic) upon his actions but to help him stay out of such gray area situations in the future.” A detective, Ron Schreffler “recalled that the interview was conducted in an office in the Lasch Building so as not to put Sandusky on the defensive.” Curley, in an email discussing how to handle Sandusky, proposed a less aggressive approach because “I am having trouble with going to everyone, but the person involved…I would indicate we feel there is a problem and we want to assist the individual to get professional help.” Later, in his interview with Freeh’s team, former Penn State president Graham Spanier, who was fired along with Paterno for his role in failing to report and investigate Sandusky’s conduct, apparently complained that he himself wasn’t given enough credit for being empathetic. “Spanier stated that the media did not focus on the part of his statement that was empathetic to the victims. When asked if the six words ‘[p]rotecting children requires the utmost vigilance’ sufficiently reflected the harm suffered by children who had been abused on the Penn State campus, Spanier said it was not his ‘place to jump to any conclusions or declare someone guilty before there was any due process,’” despite the fact that his own failures to report Sandusky meant that due process was impossible. As the report notes, “Spanier never declared Sandusky a ‘persona non grata’ on Penn State campuses, as he did towards a sports agent who, before the 1997 Citrus Bowl, bought $400 worth of clothing for a Penn State football player. Spanier was very aggressive in that case and banned the agent from campus. Spanier said the agent ‘fooled around with the integrity of the university, and I won’t stand for that.’” That $400 purchase could have resulted in an athlete losing eligibility, a defeat in the game, a disruption of the football program — in other words, consequences for Spanier. Apparently, Spanier was willing to accept those risks to his reputation, his program, and his school if they were posed by someone within Penn State football instead of outside it.

It’s amazing to compare this sense of entitlement to the feelings of people who had less power than Paterno, and Sandusky, and university administrators, and who relied on those men for things like jobs, or enrichment for their children. The mother of one of Sandusky’s victims felt clear conflict over her reaction that what Sandusky had done to what her son was wrong. “At 7:48 a.m. on May 4, 1998, the boy’s mother called Alycia Chambers, a licensed State College psychologist who had been working with her son, to see if she was ‘overreacting’ to Sandusky’s showering with her son,” the report explains. “The psychologist assured the mother that she was not overreacting and told her to make a report to the authorities.” And it’s incredibly sad to read about a janitor who witnessed Sandusky abusing a child.


The janitor immediately told one of his fellow janitors (“Janitor B”) what he had witnessed, stating that he had “fought in the [Korean] War…seen people with their guts blowed out, arms dismembered….I just witnessed something in there I’ll never forget.’…Janitor C advised Janitor A how he could report what he saw, if he wanted to do so. Janitor B said he would stand by Janitor A if he reported the incident to the police, but Janitor A said ‘no, they’ll get rid of all of us.’ Janitor B explained to the Special Investigative Counsel that reporting the incident ‘would have been like going against the President of the United States in my eyes.’

These men had such power, and the people they had power over had so little expectation of empathy from them, even in a situation involving attacks on children.