HARRISBURG, Pa. â€” Jury selection began Monday in the trial of Penn State’s former president on charges that he put children at risk by mishandling child sex abuse complaints about retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Graham Spanier declined to comment as he entered a Harrisburg courthouse for a trial that could last a week or more. It also might bring to the stand two former top lieutenants who recently struck plea bargains.
Jury selection was off to a slow start as lawyers finalize questions the potential jurors will be asked about sexual abuse and other sensitive topics.
Spanier, 68, is accused of two counts of endangering the welfare of children and a single conspiracy charge, all felonies. Former vice-president Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley pleaded guilty last week to a single misdemeanour count of child endangerment, and they await sentencing.
The charges stem from their handling of a report in 2001 that Sandusky had apparently molested a boy in a team shower. Prosecutors say their failure to report that to authorities allowed Sandusky to continue to abuse boys and also endangered others.
Sandusky was not arrested until 2011, after prosecutors got an anonymous tip about the shower incident, witnessed by graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary. Sandusky was convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing 10 boys and is serving 30 to 60 years in prison.
Shortly after Sandusky’s arrest, Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno was fired over his handling of the matter. He had been the first school official to hear McQueary’s account of the shower incident.
One of the most successful coaches in college football history, Paterno died of lung cancer a few months later at the age of 85. He was never charged with a crime.
Spanier was forced out as president when Sandusky, Curley and Schultz were charged in 2011, but Spanier was not charged until the following year.
He has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, saying Curley and Schultz characterized the incident in the shower as horseplay and not any form of child abuse.
A report commissioned by the university and conducted by a team led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh concluded that Paterno and the three others hushed up the allegations against Sandusky for fear of bad publicity.
McQueary testified on several occasions about how he went to Paterno a day after the shower encounter to discuss what he had seen. Paterno notified Curley and Schultz, and McQueary met with both of them about a week later. In his 2011 grand jury testimony, Paterno said he was told by McQueary the encounter involved “fondling” and was of “a sexual nature” but wasn’t quite sure what the act was.
The administrators told Sandusky he could not bring children onto campus anymore, but they had no plan to enforce that rule, prosecutors said.
A key piece of evidence is likely to be an email exchange the Freeh team obtained in which the three high-ranking officials debated how they should handle the 2001 shower incident. Spanier gave his approval to having Curley tell Sandusky to get professional help or face a report to the state’s child welfare agency.
“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,” Spanier replied. He called the plan “humane and a reasonable way to proceed.”
Mark Scolforo, The Associated Press