Down In The Valley V: Spanier’s Culture of Secrecy And Penn State’s Other Ignored Child Sexual Abuse Scandal

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

Author note: This is the fifth in a series about the child sexual abuse scandal at The Pennsylvania State University that helped bring down iconic football coach Joe Paterno and three top officials at the premier public college in Pennsylvania.  

The Magician

Penn State’s ousted president and amateur magician, Graham Spanier, enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for secrecy while leading the state’s flagship public university. In one instance, Spanier became incensed when he learned that the Harrisburg Patriot-News had obtained the salaries of the top PSU officials —  including Joe Paterno  — from the state pension board.  (Paterno had consistently made mention of the fact that he received around $500,000 per year as a coach, donating much of it back to PSU. Many prominent FBS football coaches make up to ten times that amount and it appears Paterno was fudging a bit on his salary.) Spanier embarked on a five-year fight to block publication of the salaries, taking the case through the entire appeals process and up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Spanier lost at every level. Undaunted and against the odds, he successfully lobbied Pennsylvania state lawmakers to reject closing the loophole which exempted college employees salaries from the state’s “right-to-know” law. With that legislative prestidigitation, he just made the problem disappear.

The Last Chance to Save the Board

Secrecy and back door politicking were also the tools used by Spanier to secure his control of  university operations and to insure only a  timid and uninformed rubber stamping  from the Board of Trustees. This proclivity did not go unnoticed by at least some Board members. In 2004, seven of them drafted good governance proposals calling for more scrutiny of the President and his decision-making. They were presented to the PSU Board of Trustees but a full vote was deferred. The changes to the by-laws would have greatly enhanced the Board’s oversight of Spanier and clarified its role as the final arbiter in matters of both policy and  day-to day operations like removing senior administrative officers. You can read the proposed changes here.

Long-time board member, Joel Myers, has said  the changes  would have prevented situations like the Sandusky scandal from escaping the Board’s notice since the by-law changes required the president to present periodic reports on university operations and also empowered the Board to obtain follow-up reports. Spanier sensed the threat and fought the proposals deftly and, with the aid of then chairwoman and current general counsel, Cynthia Baldwin, the matter was tabled before a vote could be taken. (Spanier’s cohort, Cynthia Baldwin, has been criticized in the Freeh report for opposing an independent investigation of the Board’s actions or inactions during the Sandusky scandal while serving as  PSU’s General Counsel thus completing the circle of secrecy).  The failed attempt to rein in Spanier’s presidency was  the last chance for the Board to fulfill its obligation to oversee university operations.

Graham Spanier: The Man

Graham Spanier

Spanier’s background would not suggest a callous and secretive approach to matters involving child abuse. In fact, just the opposite as he was a victim of abuse himself.  Born in Cape Town, South Africa, to parents who had fled the Nazis, he was raised in Chicago where his family settled after becoming disgusted with the apartheid system that reminded Spanier’s father of  Nazi Germany.  Sadly, Fritz Spanier was not quite so principled or sensitive in The Big Onion. Spanier’s prominent “prize-fighters nose” came from his dad’s raucous temperament according to long-time friend, Michael Oriard, an associate dean at Oregon State. Of his father,  Spanier said in 1988:

His marriage was dismal, his family life was decidedly unhappy, and his abusive behavior toward his wife and children, tolerated in the 1950s, would have resulted in legal intervention today.

Years later, in what might be a telling comment on his approach to managing the Sandusky crisis, Spanier asked the audience of the the 4,400-member National Council on Family Relations over which he served as President, “Why do so many children experience abuse, disruption, poverty, or hunger, yet somehow, against great odds, reach adulthood with the notion that family life can be rewarding?” The answer, he theorized, may be that a powerful commitment to marriage and family is being transmitted even in families that could be described as unhappy, broken, pathological or nonexistent.  Some might argue it is a  misguided commitment by a victim to the source of their abuse that elevates psuedo-security over the human yearning for justice and vindication — sort of a kiddie Stockholm Syndrome. But, of course, Spanier’s the expert here in so many ways.

Bright and curious, Spanier overcame his upbringing to thrive in academic settings. The Iowa State and Northwestern graduate made his bones as a sociologist and family therapist with a specialty in researching family relationships. Author of over 10 books and scads of papers, some of his areas of interest were marital relations and the dynamics of child abuse situations. His range was varied however, as he wrote extensively on sex education and social taboos involving families. In one paper in 1975 for the “Archives of Sexual Behavior,”, he commented on the virtues of wife swapping;

This article attempts to illuminate the understanding of swinging, or mate swapping, an increasingly common form of extramarital sexual activity. A theoretical formulation argues that swinging is a form of extramarital sexual activity which serves to define as good and acceptable a behavior that in other forms and in the past has been considered deviant and immoral.

By temperament he was easy going and affable. Friends have said the only time they remember him being visibly angry was when he observed one child striking another for no reason.

Backdropped by striking irony,  the Freeh report made specific criticisms of Spanier’s handling of  the McCleary child abuse complaint saying Spanier and other upper echelon management at PSU,  exhibited “total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims [and] failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.” A searing public indictment against someone who had overcome abuse himself and then committed himself to studying family dynamics of the problem. Spanier had come full circle from his National Council on Family Relations speech only to find himself pilloried in the press for too much loyalty to his sometimes abusive academic family.

The Seeds of Corruption

What could then cause this breach of faith among the best and brightest in American academe? Historian Theodore White observed that “All endeavors which are directed to a purely worldly end, contain within themselves the seeds of their own corruption.” Here, the seeds of  corruption corroding the Penn State football program and the university itself,  may have been planted just one year before the infamous Sandusky assault by another allegation of sexual abuse against a PSU educator.

In 2001, a private investigator living in Phoenix, telephoned Penn State officials and eventually spoke to Spanier about troubling allegations of sexual abuse by a PSU employee in the late 1970s. In chilling detail, he described the abuse that he said occurred at the State College campus and elsewhere.   Paul McLaughlin, 45, claimed that he had been sexually abused by a prominent PSU professor and two of  the prof’s friends.  In the call, he pointedly  told Spanier that  he had a taped confession from the professor. The PSU president wouldn’t hear it – didn’t even want to acknowledge it. “He told me whatever I wanted to get from the school, I wasn’t going to get it, and this was a guy with an impeccable reputation, and unless he was convicted of a crime, they weren’t interested,” McLaughlin said.  Spanier told McLaughlin not to bother sending the tape. McLaughlin sent him the tape anyway.

Paul McLaughlin

McLaughlin told Spanier that from ages 11 to 15  he was sexually abused by three men, one of whom he claimed was prominent professor of education, John T. Neisworth. The alleged victim claimed that he repressed the memory but  when it finally reemerged he was shocked to learn that Neisworth continued to work for the university. Neisworth, who has done pioneering work with autistic children,  has consistently denied the allegations and has refused to talk to the press.  However in 2001, McLaughlin called the professor  and engaged in conversation pretending he enjoyed their encounters and had groomed an underage male lover of his own. According to McLaughlin, Neisworth incriminated himself on an audio tape in which the professor allegedly admitted to serving the youth alcohol and engaging in sexual activities. Cecil County, Maryland authorities transcribed the tape and brought charges against Neisworth. Those criminal charges were ultimately dismissed after the tape was deemed inadmissible, but McLaughlin claims he sued Neisworth  in civil court and was offered  a “six-figure” confidential settlement to resolve the matter. He accepted the offer.

Dr. John “Jack” T. Neisworth

As for reaction from Penn State and Spanier, what would become an all too familiar pattern emerged: McLaughlin’s tape was returned unopened, telephone calls were forgotten,  and the university did nothing to discipline Neisworth. Since the police already had the matter, it could not be argued that Penn State had  neglected a duty to report the allegations. One Penn State official, David Monk, Dean of  the College of Education, did acknowledge receiving the complaint, if not the tape, saying, “I did take the charges seriously and immediately determined that Mr. Neisworth’s Penn State duties did not involve direct contact with children.”  Curious circumstance for an internationally known educator who wrote “The Autism Encyclopedia,” and 12 other treatises about autistic children.  Neisworth retired the following year as Spanier oversaw yet another disappearing act by an accused PSU employee, much as he did when Sandusky retired in 1999 after allegations of child abuse surfaced against him publicly in 1998. (Freeh has found no evidence linking the two events but the coincidence remains and Sandusky for once isn’t talking.)

In a 2005 article, Monk said that he thought that Neisworth had done no clinical work with children on the campus and that “Penn State is not investigating Neisworth’s activities at the university.”  And like Sandusky, not all ties to PSU were cut.  Neisworth remained in an emeritus status that he still enjoys today, participated in university seminars and workshops, and  taught remote classes and generally enjoyed  the role of a distinguished retired scholar.

The disregard for the veracity of McLaughlin’s complaint is bad enough, and the refusal to even hear the alleged taped confession is mind-boggling, but perhaps most incredible is Monk’s analysis of  the university’s  moral responsibility.  Neisworth’s “duties did not involve direct contact with children,”  intones the polymath, thus  it follows that, in Penn State’s view,  no concern need be shown by the university for his contact with children away from the campus. That’s quite an incredible take on a complaint of child sexual abuse. The total disregard for the safety of children who might come into contact with the alleged employee-pedophile is likewise shocking on a professional and human level. It’s also the same approach taken by Spanier, Shultz, Paterno, and Curley, just a year later when they decided that the best option in the face of a credible report of child rape was to tell Sandusky that his youthful “guests” would no longer be welcome in the Lasch Building’s shower stalls.

What happens away from Penn State stays away from Penn State, or so it was tragically claimed.

The Shanghai Gone Awry

Spanier’s undue concern for secrecy and his desire to control university operations outside of Board scrutiny may have created a situation that even he can’t make disappear. By keeping a blind-fold over the Board, he may have given an opening to victim’s lawyers by allowing  them to argue the Board negligently failed to discharge their oversight duties. Freeh explicitly stated in his report that, “The board’s over-confidence in Spanier’s abilities, and its failure to conduct oversight and responsible inquiry of Spanier and senior university officials, hindered the board’s ability to deal with the most profound crisis ever confronted by the University.” That comment hits like blood in the water for lawyers seeking to prove that the Board shirked its legal obligation to oversee the university and its officials thus permitting the abuse to occur through its collective negligence. “This could increase our liability,” a current trustee said, “possibly by millions.”

Calls for the resignation of the Board of Trustees had fallen on deaf ears until this Thursday when ex-chairman, Steve Garban, resigned. Garban was harshly criticized by the Freeh report for his stewardship of the Board during the Sandusky scandal. Judge Freeh singled out Garban and suggested that he was twice told of the Sandusky matter but secreted it away from the entire Board thus depriving it of the opportunity to prepare for the looming crisis. In a letter to Board chairwoman Karen Peetz, Garban said: “It is clear to me that my presence on the board has become a distraction and an impediment to your efforts to move forward.”  Many have suggested Garban was pressured to resign by fellow board members as a sign that the board was changing course, and in order to avoid the NCAA’s death penalty reserved for especially egregious lapses in institutional control over the football program.  The NCAA’s hard-nosed President Mark Emmert has pointedly refused to rule out the death penalty for the program saying, “I’ve never seen anything as egregious as this in terms of just overall conduct and behavior inside a university and hope never to see it again.” A shutdown of the program could cost Penn State about $70 million according to experts.

Recently, Spanier’s lawyers have countered the allegations of the Freeh report claiming it was unfair and full of errors. They also claim Spanier was never advised of the allegations of child sexual abuse at the university and that a federal investigation into his security clearance exonerated him.  At this point, however, those protestations of innocence seem like the railings of King Canute  against a rising tide of recrimination.

The Duty of the Strong

The most disheartening feature of this sad case of pedophilia is the utter unexpectedness of its enablers. Child abusers come from every walk of life and their corrupt brain wiring is not understood. Sandusky is an enigma of our species. However, privileged academics earning hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars from an adoring public and supporters of the university are understood. We expect a level of fidelity, trust, and responsibility in the discharge of their duties that transcends the base motives of greed, lust, and silence when good men would speak. We demand that they be held to account to us for transgressions against us, and we need not tolerate the coy equivocations of a child when offered  by the privileged in their own defense. Finally, these men owed a duty — both as public men and simply as men themselves —  to save helpless children from the abominations that were perpetrated on them by one whom these men both knew and knew too well.

It was French playwright Victor Hugo who, with the imprint of the bloody French Revolution still seared in the collective mind of his countrymen, declaimed:

The little people must be sacred to the big ones, and it is from the rights of the weak that the duty of the strong is comprised.

Some in the palaces of leadership at Penn State — like the Bourbon kings of old — ignored this irremeable law of duty as they had so many other things. They should not be surprised by the magnitude of the reckoning.

Source: ESPN and New York Times; and

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

68 thoughts on “Down In The Valley V: Spanier’s Culture of Secrecy And Penn State’s Other Ignored Child Sexual Abuse Scandal”

  1. Crazy immegant Vladimir Sadomskiy looking for a serios problem aganst Alec Krypnik. Krypniks famely be awere Sadomskiys promise to kill entire famely they want to robe them Sadomskiys went crazy

  2. Malisha,

    I usually don’t listen to the lyrics. I’m dense. I just listen to the noise.

    You’re not dense.

  3. Malisha, good to hear of someone else who doesn’t “hear” the lyrics. King Ralph was mentioned on a thread. I watched the movie last night. Good fluff. Best part was Goodman’s Little Richard number and Little Richard’s version during the credits. Don’t know if the lyrics make sense (probably don’t) but the percussion does.

  4. Matt Johnson, oh, thanks for that song, fabulous! I’m sure I have heard it, the line “I can’t tell you why” came through as a distinct memory. Often, though, I can’t make out what the lyrics are as songs play. That’s why I like James Brown; it doesn’t matter WHAT the lyrics are (all lyrics = please please please) and every instrument is percussion.

    That said, I then had to go back and read to try to figure out the significance…maybe I’m going through a period of stubborn incomprehension but, if so, good music is probably the best medicine. Thanks.

  5. Is this some kind of weird I.Q. test? Years in the Dark? Who wrote that song? Eagles?

    When I google “Years in the dark” with quotation marks it kicks up the Batman movie; more gives less.

    I know a lot about a little. Sometimes it is possible to generalize or find analogies but not often. Anyway, I’m lost now.

    Amazing Grace?

  6. mespo,

    Come to think of it … maybe that should be investigated … kickback advertising dollars to get concession contracts? 😉

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