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What did Joe Paterno really know about the Sandusky scandal at Penn State?

The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins discussed her exclusive interview with Penn State legend Joe Paterno, in which the former head football coach spoke at length about the child sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. (Video: Sally Jenkins, Alexandra Garcia/The Washington Post, Photo: John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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In late 2011 and 2012, the Penn State child sex abuse scandal exploded and then seemingly reached a resolution in rapid-fire fashion.

In November 2011, Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with sexually abusing eight boys — including one in a shower on campus a decade before, an incident witnessed by a young graduate assistant who informed legendary coach Joe Paterno and two campus administrators, none of whom contacted authorities. Within days, Penn State’s trustees had fired Paterno. In the ensuing 12 months, Paterno died, Sandusky was convicted, a university-commissioned investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh concluded Paterno and three administrators covered up for Sandusky, and prosecutors brought cover-up-related charges against the three administrators.

This weekend, HBO’s “Paterno,” starring Al Pacino as the iconic coach, revisits the first few weeks of those tumultuous 12 months in State College, Pa., and likely will revive, for some, the debate over Paterno’s role in Sandusky’s crimes. While the case faded from national headlines in late 2012, it has fueled years of legal battles in Pennsylvania and a power struggle on the board of trustees at Penn State that is still unfolding today.

Review: Despite ambiguities of ‘Paterno,’ Al Pacino is an effective — and pathetic — JoePa

Here are the major flash points in a conflict that is still far from resolved in the Penn State community, where some even question Sandusky’s guilt.

The 1998 case

The first documented suspicion about Sandusky came when the mother of an 11-year-old participant in the Second Mile, Sandusky’s charity for at-risk children, called police after her son told her Sandusky had hugged him while they showered. During the ensuing investigation — involving Penn State police, the local district attorney’s office and a local child protection agency — another Second Mile participant, a 10-year-old boy, also said Sandusky hugged him while they showered.

While neither boy described sex acts, a psychologist who interviewed one of the boys gave police a report that concluded the interactions the boy described with Sandusky matched “a likely pedophile’s pattern of building trust and gradual introduction of physical touch.” A therapist who worked with the child protection agency, however, filed a contradicting report, concluding Sandusky “didn’t fit the profile of a pedophile.”

Sandusky, when interviewed by police, admitted to hugging the 11-year-old while they showered but denied doing anything sexual. A detective told him to stop showering with children and filed his report with the district attorney’s office, which declined to press charges. Child welfare officials also declined to revoke Sandusky’s clearance to work with children.

In his grand jury testimony and in interviews before he died, Paterno repeatedly denied knowledge of the 1998 investigation. An email produced in later investigations, however, showed Tim Curley, then the school’s athletic director, asked for an update on the 1998 case because “coach is anxious to hear where it stands.” Paterno defenders for years maintained “coach” could have referred to Sandusky, but Curley testified last year he had been referring to Paterno, who was informed of the 1998 case.

Freeh viewed Paterno’s knowledge of the 1998 investigation as damning, in light of his decision not to contact police three years later. Paterno’s defenders view the 1998 case as demonstrating how many others in positions of authority, including trained child welfare professionals, failed to act on similar suspicions about Sandusky.

The 2001 case

The incident at the core of the coverup allegations came when Mike McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback and graduate assistant, encountered Sandusky showering with a boy one night in Penn State’s football facility. What McQueary saw that night and how he described it are subjects of great dispute.

When approached by police years later, McQueary said he saw Sandusky standing behind the boy, engaged in what he believed to be a sex act, and that he reported this vaguely to Paterno but described it explicitly when he later met with Curley and Senior Vice President Gary Schultz, who oversaw university police. Curley and Schultz, however, said McQueary was also vague with them, and that, though they can’t recall the precise words, McQueary described Sandusky and the boy as engaged in “horseplay” or “horsing around,” and not a sex act.

Curley and Schultz consulted with university president Graham Spanier, and the three considered reporting Sandusky, then retired, to child welfare authorities. After Curley met with Paterno, however, he changed his mind and suggested a plan that Spanier and Schultz agreed to: Curley barred Sandusky from bringing children to Penn State’s football facilities and met with Jack Raykovitz, executive director of the Second Mile, to inform him of the incident.

Six years later, Penn State still at war over the Sandusky scandal

When Paterno spoke to law enforcement officials years later, he offered slightly different recollections of what McQueary told him. In one interview with prosecutors, Paterno said McQueary didn’t offer specific details, but he was obviously upset by what he had seen. When testifying before a grand jury, however, Paterno said he believed McQueary described seeing “fondling,” or something of “a sexual nature.”

Paterno died before emails from 2001 between the administrators showing the changing of plans came to light, and he was never asked about that fateful meeting with Curley. In testimony last year, Curley said he could not remember the meeting with Paterno, but that the idea to change the plan from reporting Sandusky to authorities had been his alone.

Prosecutors and Freeh believed McQueary, whose testimony became the basis for perjury, child endangerment and obstruction of justice charges against the administrators. There are questions about the accuracy of McQueary’s memory, however. Until investigators uncovered emails between the administrators from 2001, McQueary thought the incident happened in March 2002. A close family friend who was one of the first people McQueary spoke with that night — Jonathan Dranov, a State College physician and a mandatory reporter of child abuse by law — repeatedly has testified McQueary didn’t tell him he saw a sex act, but rather that he heard sexual sounds, then later saw Sandusky and a boy leaving the shower.

When prosecutors announced charges in 2011, court documents describing the 2001 incident used more explicit terminology that McQueary would later testify he had never used: Prosecutors wrote that McQueary witnessed an anal rape and reported “what he had seen” to Paterno, Curley and Schultz.

The governor and the Second Mile

When Penn State’s board of trustees decided to fire Paterno and part ways with Spanier, Pennsylvania’s governor, Tom Corbett, was involved in the discussions as a board member. Some Penn State alumni have long viewed Corbett’s role in those decisions with suspicion.

As Pennsylvania attorney general, Corbett had overseen the early stages of the Sandusky investigation before he was elected governor. Some believe the focus on failings at Penn State diverted attention from failings at state agencies, including the attorney general’s office, which later drew criticism as details emerged about a criminal investigation that moved at a plodding pace that frustrated the first victim to contact police in 2008.

Corbett had accepted campaign donations from several board members of the Second Mile, and some alumni have espoused theories that the criminal investigation targeted Penn State, rather than the Second Mile, because of political considerations. Corbett, a Republican, also had feuded with Spanier over budget cuts. Spanier would later tell investigators he believed he had been the victim of a “political hit job” orchestrated by Corbett.

In 2013, newly elected attorney general Kathleen Kane, a Democrat who had suggested on the campaign trail that Corbett slow-walked the Sandusky investigation so that it didn’t affect his run for governor, appointed a special prosecutor to review the Sandusky investigation. The resulting report criticized the investigation’s pace but found no evidence of political considerations having any influence.

In 2014, Corbett became the first incumbent Pennsylvania governor in 40 years to lose a bid for reelection. In a phone interview last year, Corbett said he believes the Sandusky case played a role.

“The Second Mile had no influence on that investigation whatsoever, and there’s no evidence that they did,” Corbett said. “But [Penn State alumni] won’t accept that, will they?”

No Second Mile employees or officials ever have been charged with a crime connected to Sandusky’s abuses.

The Freeh Report and the NCAA

Outside of Sandusky, there may not be a more reviled person around State College and among Penn State alumni than Freeh, the former FBI director who concluded Paterno and the three administrators covered up the 2001 report to avoid bad publicity, and that a “culture of reverence for the football program” at Penn State caused others to willfully ignore signs of Sandusky’s abuse.

Within days of its release in July 2012, Freeh’s report became the basis for a $60 million fine the NCAA imposed on Penn State, as part of a series of unprecedented punishments that also included erasing all of Paterno’s wins from 1998 through 2011. (For a time, ironically, Paterno’s last recorded win came with McQueary as quarterback.)

Freeh didn’t interview Paterno, who had died, nor did he interview Curley or Schultz, who declined under advice of their lawyers, nor did he interview McQueary or anyone McQueary spoke with in 2001, at the request of prosecutors. He based his conclusion on the emails that showed the administrators planning to report Sandusky until Curley met with Paterno.

While Penn State trustees accepted the Freeh Report and the NCAA sanctions, alumni and lawmakers didn’t. A lawsuit filed in 2013 by two state representatives against the NCAA produced a series of communications between NCAA officials and Freeh investigators that raised questions of whether the NCAA — whose president, Mark Emmert, had publicly conveyed an interest in punishing Penn State even though his authority to do so was debatable — had influenced Freeh’s report.

Freeh and the NCAA have denied this, and Freeh also has denied the suggestion by alumni and Pennsylvania lawmakers — whom he has derided in public statements as “Paterno deniers” and “political hacks” — that he catered his report to appeal to the NCAA in the hopes of acquiring future contract work for his firm. The lawsuit ended with a settlement, and the NCAA restored Paterno’s win total to 409.

In November 2012, prosecutors filed a series of charges against Spanier, Curley and Schultz — including obstruction of justice and conspiracy — that seemingly affirmed Freeh’s conclusion, as it related to the administrators. In the courts, however, the coverup case largely collapsed, with most of the charges tossed by appeals judges over ethically questionable behavior by a prosecutor and Penn State’s former general counsel, who initially represented the administrators and then became a witness against them.

Last year, Curley and Schultz pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment, and a jury convicted Spanier of the same crime, while acquitting him of conspiracy.

While Freeh celebrated the verdict in public statements as vindication, alumni pointed out that the conspiracy charges failed to produce convictions, Paterno was never charged with a crime, and the prosecutors who led the Sandusky investigation repeatedly have said they did not believe Paterno participated in any coverup.

The earlier accusers and the Sandusky supporters

Sandusky was convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys, eight who testified at trial and two who were never found but whose abuse was described by witnesses, including the boy McQueary claims he saw in the shower. Since 2012, Penn State has paid more than $109 million to more than 30 men who have come forward claiming to be Sandusky victims, and some of their claims — made public through a lawsuit between Penn State and its insurance company — produced allegations that Paterno ignored victims as far back as the 1970s, and that others at Penn State ignored victims in the 1980s and 1990s.

Paterno’s family and others accused by these alleged victims have denied their claims and pointed out that Penn State has acknowledged it did not thoroughly vet them before agreeing to settle. A legal expert in child abuse payouts agreed; when he reviewed Penn State’s settlement with alleged Sandusky victims for an insurance company, he wrote a report expressing concern that Penn State officials “made little effort, if any, to verify the credibility of the claims.”

One Paterno assistant accused of ignoring Sandusky acting improperly with a child didn’t work at Penn State when the alleged incident happened. Among the victims Penn State paid was a man who came to police before Sandusky’s trial, alleging he had been the boy in the shower in 2001, but prosecutors didn’t believe him, noting his account changed dramatically over a series of interviews and that he was too old to match McQueary’s description.

Among some close followers of the case, doubts about some Sandusky accusers have grown to become doubts about all Sandusky accusers. Among the most outspoken proponents of this theory is John Ziegler, a former conservative talk show host and documentary filmmaker, who started following the Sandusky case with the hopes of creating a film that exonerated Paterno but came to believe Sandusky was innocent as well.

Last year, author Mark Pendergrast published a book, “The Most Hated Man in America,” in which he asserted several of Sandusky’s victims who testified at his trial offered shifting accounts of abuse and appeared to describe recovered or repressed memories, a concept which is scientifically disputed. If Sandusky ever obtains a new trial, Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who is one of the world’s foremost experts on memories, has agreed to testify in his defense.

Among the blurbs of support on Pendergrast’s book was one from Gary Gray, a Penn State finance professor and former football player and coach under Paterno.

“I believe that Jerry Sandusky is almost certainly an innocent man, the victim of a tragic miscarriage of justice,” Gray wrote.

The battles remaining

The legal fallout of the Sandusky case has mostly concluded, but a few cases remain.

Sandusky’s appeals for a new trial continue; he lost his last one in October. Spanier has appealed his conviction and, if he wins, he is expected to refile a defamation lawsuit against Freeh over his report.

On Penn State’s board, the nine alumni-elected trustees continue their fight against the other 29 members and the administration to get the university to publicly renounce the Freeh report and offer some kind of public apology to the Paterno family. Last year, alumni elected Jay Paterno, Joe’s son and former assistant coach, to the board.

“At some point, the administration needs to say, ‘We got it wrong,’ ” Jay Paterno said in an interview last year. “The fact that my dad was unaware of what Jerry was, that shouldn’t be a scarlet letter.”

While some of Sandusky’s victims and their advocates agree Paterno was far from the only person to fail to stop Sandusky, they believe the continued fight over the case’s impact on Paterno’s legacy keeps open wounds they had hoped would have begun healing by now.

Among them is Alycia Chambers, the psychologist whose 1998 report on Sandusky was ignored by police, and who still lives near State College.

“All of this is hurtful to the victims. … People are too concerned about a dead man’s reputation and not thinking about what it would feel like to be a survivor of child abuse,” Chambers said in recent phone interview. “He was a human being. He had a generous spirit. He did many good things. … But he was a human, not a saint.”