In a letter leaked on Monday — the same day the NCAA levied a $60 million fine on Penn State — the university’s former president, Graham Spanier, writes that he himself was a victim of abuse by his father and that he would never have ignored reports of sexual abuse. Peter Vaira, Spanier’s lawyer, says that the abuse Spanier suffered was never sexual but involved “disciplinary beatings” that meant the young Spanier had to have “his nose straightened several times.”
“It is unfathomable and illogical to think that a respected family sociologist and family therapist, someone who personally experienced massive and persistent abuse as a child, someone who devoted a significant portion of his career to the welfare of children and youth … would have knowingly turned a blind eye to any report of child abuse or predatory sexual acts directed at children.”
But Spanier’s letter is contradicted by emails between him and other Penn State officials in the report conducted under former FBI director Louis Freeh:
In one 2001 e-mail, Mr. Spanier avoids reporting an incident of abuse and encourages another employee to talk to Mr. Sandusky directly instead of notifying the authorities:“The only downside for us is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it. but that can be assessed down the road.”
Spanier claims that he did not “understand the 2001 incident was sexual” and that he did not recall receiving emails about the 1998 report. The Freeh report, he says, is “egregious in its incomplete and inaccurate reporting” and “is full of factual errors and jumps to conclusions that are untrue and unwarranted.”
Certainly it is terrible to hear about anyone suffering child abuse of any sort. But Spanier and other Penn State officials including late coach Joe Paterno are not being judged on who they are but on what they did and did not do; on how they covered up reports of former assistant coach Jerry Sadusky sexually abusing children in the athletic facilities of Penn State.
Spanier had previously spoken of how his father Fred, who escaped from Nazi Germany for South Africa, was a huge inspiration to him.
Questions about whether the NCAA’s sanctions went far enough in penalizing Penn State are being raised. Spanier’s letter suggests that there is yet more to learn about the child sexual abuse scandal and about the decisions and actions of top-level administrators at universities where the importance of athletics came to overshadow academic, and moral and legal, concerns.
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