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Column: The other side to the story

The extensive Critique of the Freeh Report commissioned and released by the Paterno family this week did two things. It revealed what many have said since last July, that the Freeh Report that was essentially the basis for the NCAA sanctions Penn State received was far from comprehensive and, in many ways, little more than speculation. It also shined an important and long overdue light on the nature and chilling techniques of Jerry Sandusky and other pedophiles.

Jay Paterno pointed out a lot of holes in the Freeh report this week but some important questions remain unanswered.

But though it did an admirable job of deconstructing many of the assertions Freeh and his investigators made out to be "facts," the Paterno report didn't deliver many facts of its own.

I watched Jay Paterno make the rounds in Bristol this Monday, then saw Sue Paterno and her two daughters, Diana and Mary Kay, sit with Jay on Katie Couric's set later that afternoon. All of the Paternos conducted themselves with class and integrity during what had to be an emotional week. Considering all that has been written and said about Joe Paterno over the past year and a half, I can understand their desire to publicly address several of the claims made about him by the Freeh report and the lengths to which they went to dispute them.

But as I read through page after page of the critique, which included testimony from former Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh and medical experts Jim Clemente and Fred Berlin, I saw little more than opinions -- albeit expert opinions -- of another kind.

"As Messrs. Thornburgh and Clemente and Dr. Berlin have each concluded, the full story behind the tragic events involving Jerry Sandusky is not the one told by the Freeh report," attorney Wick Sollers wrote in the summary. "The authors of the Freeh report chose not to present alternative, more plausible, conclusions regarding Joe Paterno’s role in the events involving Jerry Sandusky."

The Freeh report did not tell the full story, and I'm not sure if Freeh ever fully claimed that it did. But the Paterno report, while offering alternative conclusions regarding Paterno's role in the Sandusky events, does not tell the full story either. And that is the fundamental problem -- the story, in its fullest and most complete form, might never be told. At this point, the three former Penn State administrators awaiting trial and the former assistant coach that saw Sandusky in the shower with a young boy might have trouble piecing together the full story even if Paterno were still with us and able to assist them.

So we have been left, then, as we await those trials, with more speculation. The speculation in the Freeh report made Paterno out to be irresponsible. The speculation in the Freeh critique lumped him in with the rest of the community who, as Clemente believed, were fooled for decades by a master manipulator.

"Given my 30 years of education, training and experience working, evaluating and assessing child sex crimes investigations around the world," Clemente wrote, "it is my expert opinion that Paterno did not know, or even believe in the possibility, that Sandusky was capable of sexually assaulting boys."

Once again, though, the key word there is "opinion." We don't know and can't know whether Paterno believed in the possibility that Sandusky was capable of the crimes for which he was convicted. All we have to go on is various versions of what he was told by McQueary in 2001 and what little information existed about the investigation of Sandusky in 1998 that Paterno might or might not have known about.

What has been remarkable, but given today's media climate, not all that surprising, was how much Paterno's role has been dissected and discussed compared to the roles of Curley, Schultz and Spanier, those of the officers at The Second Mile, members of the Department of Public Welfare and local police. It's as if some believe that all of the other people in position to halt Sandusky were either waiting for the go-ahead from Paterno to act or powerless to stop him without help from a football coach in his early 70s. It is that line of thinking that allowed Mark Emmert to condemn Penn State's "culture" and slam the school with unprecedented sanctions.

And you wonder how much of it is based upon a three-word phrase that might have been the heart of the Freeh report. The Special Investigative Counsel concluded that Paterno and others "failed to protect" the victims.

Sollers wrote that Paterno "never asked or told anyone not to investigate fully the allegations in 2001 … never asked or told anyone, including Dr. Spanier and Messrs. Curley and Schultz, not to report the 2001 incident, and … never asked or told anyone not to discuss or to hide in any way the information reported by Mr. McQueary. Joe Paterno reported the information to his superior(s) pursuant to his understanding of University protocol and relied upon them to investigate and report as appropriate."

The critique went to great, and possibly, unnecessary, lengths to show Paterno's habit of doing the right thing, citing the way he handled the Rashard Casey incident and his long history of philanthropy. It did so ostensibly to make the mere notion that he had participated in a "cover-up" seem far-fetched.

But "failing to protect" does not necessarily mean "covering up." It is hard, if not impossible, to make the case that, collectively, Penn State failed to protect Sandusky's victims. How much culpability individuals, be they Paterno or Schultz or Spanier, receive for that, and whether you believe the failure was a result of self-serving motives or, as Clemente believes, of years of manipulation by a skilled predator, are the real issues, and they are matters of opinion.

If it did nothing else, the Paterno report reminded us that there is not enough evidence to accuse the coach of anything other than negligence. But there is also not enough evidence to completely absolve him from blame. The difference is that the opinions of Freeh and the SIC were used by the NCAA to do significant damage to the school's finances and its football program and immeasurable damage to Paterno's reputation. The opinions in the Paterno report seem unlikely to affect the sanctions. How much of the damage to Paterno's reputation and legacy they will undo is, well, a matter of opinion as well.

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