PHILADELPHIA - Penn State's disgraced former president is trying to convince the public he had no idea that Jerry Sandusky was a child molester — and that he most certainly did not protect one.
With a network TV appearance, a magazine interview and a news conference held by his lawyers, Graham Spanier portrayed himself Wednesday as the innocent victim of a witch hunt and a rush to judgment by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, whose university-commissioned report on the sex-abuse scandal prompted the NCAA to hit Penn State with a $60 million fine and other sanctions.
Freeh, hired by Penn State trustees to conduct an internal probe of the scandal, released a report last month that accused Spanier, Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno and other top university officials of concealing a 2001 abuse allegation against Sandusky to protect the university from bad publicity.
Spanier told The New Yorker magazine he was stunned by Freeh's allegation.
"There's no logic to it," Spanier said. "Why on earth would anybody cover up for a known child predator? Adverse publicity? For heaven's sake! Every day I had to make some decision that got adverse publicity."
In an interview that aired on "Nightline" late Wednesday night Spanier told ABC-TV, "Never in my time as president of Penn State did I ever — ever once — receive a report from anyone that suggested that Jerry Sandusky was involved in any child abuse, in any sexual abuse, in any criminal act."
Spanier told ABC that he knew only that Sandusky had been seen engaging in "horseplay" in a campus shower with a boy in 2001 and he took that to mean "throwing water around, snapping towels."
"I wish in hindsight that I would have known more about Jerry Sandusky and his terrible, terrible hidden past so that I could have intervened because it would have been my instinct to do so," he said.
Sandusky was convicted in June of sexually abusing 10 boys. He awaits sentencing on 45 counts.
Spanier's lawyer, Timothy Lewis, excoriated Freeh as a "biased investigator" who relied on speculation and innuendo to support a preordained conclusion.
At a news conference in Philadelphia, Lewis — like Freeh a former federal judge and prosecutor — complained that Freeh never interviewed key witnesses, ignored inconvenient facts and manipulated the truth.
He called the report "a flat-out distortion of facts so infused with bias and innuendo that it is, quite simply, unworthy of the confidence that has been placed in it."
The Freeh group said Wednesday that it stands by its work.
Crisis communications expert Jason Maloni said Spanier and his lawyers may be going on the offensive now because he hopes to resurrect his academic career, and wants "to create some sort of reasonable doubt with a potential jury." Spanier has not been charged, but the criminal probe remains open.
The Freeh report, Maloni said, is a formidable hurdle for Spanier, who led Penn State for 16 years until his ouster several days after Sandusky was charged with serial child abuse.
"He's not going to have much luck deflating the Freeh report," said Maloni, senior vice president of Levick, a strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C. "Louis Freeh's got a lot of credibility and he has a strong reputation in this field as a straight shooter. This might be too little too late for Graham Spanier."
Freeh's investigation uncovered documents that suggest Spanier had deeper knowledge of the Sandusky complaints, including an email in which the president appeared to agree with athletic director Tim Curley's decision to keep the 2001 assault from child-welfare authorities, and instead work directly with Sandusky and Sandusky's charity for at-risk youths.
"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," said Spanier's email, dated Feb. 27, 2001. "The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed."
Spanier told ABC-TV that he doesn't remember the memo "but it sounds like me."
The word "vulnerable," Spanier said, "may not have been the best choice of the term" but was "a reaction to the possibility that we didn't want this to happen and if he didn't accept that and understand it, we would be disturbed by it and perhaps need to take further action. But the message we got back was that he heard the message and was agreeable."
Spanier's lawyers said Freeh took the email out of context.
The report, Lewis complained, assumes former graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno in 2001 that he saw something sexual in a locker room shower, and that Paterno echoed that to Curley and vice president Gary Schultz. Freeh likewise assumes that they in turn told Spanier the same thing.
"Curley and Schultz have denied that they ever told Dr. Spanier anything of the sort," Lewis said. "'Horseplay' was referred to over and over again, but never with any sexual connotation or suggestion of abuse. But Judge Freeh paid no attention to that."
Schultz and Curley are charged with lying to a grand jury and failure to report suspected child abuse. They have pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers released a statement Wednesday agreeing with Lewis's critique of the Freeh report.
Spanier's lawyers said they don't know whether their client will be charged, but "we don't think there's a scintilla of evidence to support an indictment," attorney John E. Riley said.