In July, Penn State's board of trustees met to discuss the most important issues facing a school system with 99,000 students and a $5.7 billion budget. It took about three hours before someone brought up Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno.
As the chairman tried to end the meeting, a hand rose from the back of the room. The chairman's smile faded as he acknowledged an alumni-elected trustee.
Anthony Lubrano, a 57-year-old wealth management executive, launched into a lengthy statement assailing the board and administration. Lubrano's criticism, as always, focused on the Freeh Report, the NCAA and the Penn State administration's efforts to distance the university from the iconic coach.
"Hundreds of thousands of alumni who care about our past and our future have been deceived and, in the process, disenfranchised," Lubrano said. "We will never heal without truth and reconciliation."
While some of the nine alumni-elected trustees nodded their heads in agreement, some of the remaining 29 trustees rolled their eyes or shook their heads in frustration. Some walked out. When Lubrano finished, the room was half-empty.
Six years after the Sandusky scandal rocked Penn State, university leadership is still fighting a civil war over the case, a conflict fueled, in part, by weaknesses that have developed in investigations that concluded top Penn State officials covered up for the convicted child molester.
While new evidence has not altered the public perception of Paterno's culpability for Sandusky's crimes, it has become fodder for conspiracy theories that have influenced state elections and incited feuds among Penn State trustees, some of whom hold deep suspicions about colleagues who quickly agreed to measures intended to end the crisis as quickly as possible.
Law enforcement officials, victims' lawyers and private investigators — including Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who authored a damning 2012 report that asserted Paterno's involvement in a coverup — say the dispute results from stubborn "Paterno-deniers," "Joebots" and "truthers," for whom no evidence will be strong enough to condemn the beloved former football coach.
"The tragedy of all of this is that it is self-perpetuated and self-inflicted," said Tom Kline, an attorney for one victim. "They have settled on an endless assault on anyone who dares suggest that there was something that happened that was wrong and that the fault lies at the doorstep of either Paterno or the football program."
But alumni trustees and supporters insist Paterno and the school were victims of a rush to judgment that spared other, more culpable organizations — most notably the Second Mile, Sandusky's charity for at-risk children — from public scorn. They point to conflicting accounts of the assault at the core of the coverup case, evidence the NCAA may have influenced Freeh's report and doubts about claims Paterno ignored assaults as far back as the 1970s.
"The board has tried to cast us as a kook fringe ... We're not a bunch of kooks. We're not Joebots. We just see it for what it is," said Christian Marrone, a 1997 alum who has served as a senior presidential appointee in both the Bush and Obama administrations. "It's a complex, complicated, emotional situation ... and it's not going to go away anytime soon."
Penn State's president, board chairman and alumni association president all declined interview requests and, in written statements, downplayed strife.
"The vast majority of our alumni are overwhelmingly supportive," board chairman Mark Dambly wrote.
Every time alumni vote, however, they elect trustees who vow to renounce Freeh's report and reconcile with the Paternos.
At that July meeting, the newest alumni trustee — who received more votes than any other candidate — walked in early, with a backpack commemorating the 2009 Rose Bowl slung over his shoulder. He doesn't have his father's prominent nose and chin, but the resemblance is there, in the eyes.
He sat down in a corner with the other alumni trustees, behind a placard with his name: "JAY PATERNO."
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News cameras snapped as a publicist strode to the lectern the morning of July 12, 2012.
"In just a moment, Louis Freeh will take the podium," the man said with a thick British accent, "to discuss the independent investigation."
A former federal judge who led the FBI from 1993 until 2001, Freeh had entered the lucrative world of leading internal investigations for troubled organizations. This assignment, which earned his firm $8.3 million, was his most high-profile case.
Sandusky had been convicted two weeks before, but Paterno's role in his former assistant's crimes was still an open question. Freeh answered it.
According to Freeh, in 2001, Paterno and three university administrators — president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz — decided to conceal a report of Sandusky assaulting a boy, to avoid bad publicity for the university and its football team. The men displayed a "callous and shocking disregard for child victims," Freeh said, as they "empowered Sandusky" to abuse boys for another decade.
Freeh's verdict capped an unimaginable downfall for Paterno, who just eight months before seemed poised to retire as the winningest, most respected coach in the history of college football. In 46 years as head coach, he'd piled up 409 wins and two national championships while professing selflessness and education, fielding teams that wore simple jerseys with no names on the back, his players graduating at rates that outpaced competitors. In the venal world of college football, Paterno built a reputation as a coach who valued integrity over winning — "Success with Honor" was his motto — and now he stood accused of covering up for a pedophile to protect his public image.
In including Paterno, Freeh had gone further than prosecutors, who would charge the administrators with crimes but said they did not believe Paterno participated. In defending his conclusion, Freeh cited "the most important evidence in the case": a chain of emails between the three administrators from 2001.
The emails showed the men planned to report Sandusky to child welfare authorities but changed course after Curley met with Paterno. Instead, they banned Sandusky from bringing children to Penn State and informed the Second Mile of the incident. Sandusky was convicted of assaulting four boys after this incident.
Regarding that pivotal conversation, Freeh did not interview Paterno, who had died that January, or Curley, who declined on the advice of his lawyer.
"We are basing this reasonable conclusion on the emails ... but we do not know what the content of that conversation was," he said.
The reaction to Freeh's report was swift, and immense. Rumors swirled the NCAA was considering imposing the "death penalty," the cancellation of an entire football season.
In an email, one trustee urged then-Penn State president Rod Erickson to tear down the statue of Paterno outside the stadium, if it would pacify the NCAA.
"Do whatever you need to do to keep the NCAA from giving us the 'Death Penalty,' " trustee Paul Suhey wrote. "I don't care if you have to bring your own bulldozer over and drag it to your farm, do it!"
Erickson replied, "That's precisely what I'm trying to do, Paul."
Two days later, after the statue was gone, Erickson emailed several colleagues: "Just talked with [NCAA President] Mark Emmert. He thought statue removal was handled very well."
Eleven days after Freeh's news conference, the NCAA announced that Penn State had entered into a "consent decree," accepting a $60 million fine and the erasing of all of Paterno's wins after 1998, the year Sandusky was investigated — but cleared — by Penn State police and a state child welfare agency. Freeh had concluded Paterno should have suspected then his assistant was a pedophile.
The NCAA traditionally didn't venture into criminal matters at universities, instead dealing with rules violations within athletics. When asked why that changed, Emmert later testified, "If a university is involved in a coverup ... that constitutes a kind of behavior that we ... want to be involved in."
In response to alumni outrage, Erickson explained that NCAA officials had made clear Penn State had no choice to avoid the death penalty.
"Emmert indicated that our only chance to avoid a death penalty along with sanctions might be to opt for a consent decree," Erickson explained at a board meeting. "It was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition."
The board's leadership commended Erickson and urged alumni to move on. A few months later, board chairwoman Karen Peetz predicted, thanks to their aggressive response, that by 2014 the Sandusky case "will be just a distant memory."
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While Penn State leaders were relieved to avoid the death penalty, some alumni seethed. Two state lawmakers asked the NCAA to spend the $60 million fine in Pennsylvania. When the NCAA refused, the lawmakers sued.
"We had a problem with the NCAA, by fiat, deciding we're going to take $60 million of taxpayer money and spend it wherever we please," said Matthew Haverstick, attorney for state Sen. Jake Corman, R.
The case produced evidence embarrassing for the NCAA. One staffer, in an email, wrote that NCAA punishments for Penn State would be unneeded and excessive, but "new NCAA leadership is extremely image conscious, and if they conclude that pursuing allegations against PSU would enhance the association's standing with the public, then an infractions case could follow."
Emails showed Oregon State President Ed Ray, NCAA executive committee chair, urged Emmert to act quickly on the Freeh Report, and Emmert expressed a desire to "leverage the moment." Ray acknowledged he never actually read the report because he was vacationing in Hawaii at the time.
Ray also testified that the NCAA's executive committee never seriously considered the death penalty. Emmert approached them, according to Ray, and said Penn State suggested a consent decree.
"Our read of the evidence was that the NCAA board of directors and the Penn State board of trustees were being played off one another by the NCAA C-suite executives," Haverstick said. "They had wildly different understandings about what was happening around them at that time."
Emmert testified the NCAA had seriously considered the death penalty and Penn State willingly agreed to the consent decree. "No one was saying this was take it or leave it," Emmert said.
In January 2015, the case settled. The NCAA agreed to spend the money in Pennsylvania and reduced other sanctions, including restoring Paterno's win total to 409.
In a phone interview, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy denied the organization tried to use the case to burnish its public image and said Penn State and the NCAA had agreed the consent decree "was the best way to allow the university to move forward."
The lawsuit also produced communications between NCAA staffers and Freeh's team that prompted some alumni to theorize Freeh catered his report — which, by including Paterno, put the case squarely in the NCAA's crosshairs — to appeal to a desired client.
While the investigation was ongoing, NCAA staffers sent Freeh's team a list of suggested interview subjects and questions. NCAA staffers gave a presentation to Freeh investigators, explaining how the NCAA determines when a university loses "institutional control" over athletics, one of the most serious offenses in the NCAA's rule book. In a deposition, a Freeh investigator acknowledged the firm had identified the NCAA as a potential client.
"This isn't and never should have been a sports story," said Maribeth Roman Schmidt, executive director of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a nonprofit that, since 2012, has worked to elect alumni trustees who promise to repudiate the Freeh Report.
In a statement, the Freeh firm rejected the suggestion that its interactions with the NCAA influenced its findings.
"Our investigation was our own ... We did not ask questions for others, or let others' opinions affect our work," the firm wrote.
The NCAA is only a part of why some alumni feel the school and Paterno took a disproportionate share of the blame, Schmidt said, before explaining theories involving a former governor and the Second Mile.
"If you really want to understand this," Schmidt said, "you need to talk to Ray Blehar."
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Mementos of Penn State fandom — framed photos of Paterno, magazine covers featuring the coach and his team, and Nittany Lion-themed toy cars — line the shelves, along with an assortment of unusual reading material. An academic report entitled "Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis," sits near an audit of Pennsylvania's child welfare system and an accordion binder, filled with financial statements from the Second Mile.
"This is all Sandusky," said Blehar as he pointed at one shelf. On the desk sat two USB drives containing more than 300,000 pages of evidence and testimony from Sandusky-related litigation. "This, over here, this is all Sandusky, too."
Blehar, 56, is a former intelligence analyst for the federal government who has devoted retirement to uncovering what he believes was a conspiracy, reaching to the highest ranks of Pennsylvania government, to have Penn State take the blame for Sandusky.
From his home outside Annapolis, Maryland, Blehar has written hundreds of posts over the years for notpsu.blogspot.com — a website devoted to "searching for the truth through a fog of deception" — analyzing new evidence from Sandusky-related cases.
"The Freeh Report was supposed to be the definitive account, and after reading it, I had more questions than answers," Blehar said. "I just want to know what the truth is."
The Freeh Report, Blehar argues, is tainted with hindsight bias, written with the assumption football coaches and college administrators should have recognized warning signs that a child welfare agency and a charity for at-risk children missed.
Freeh chided Paterno and others at Penn State for not reacting with alarm to the sight of Sandusky showering with children. In 1998, however, Sandusky admitted to an investigator with a state child welfare agency that he showered with children, and the agency cleared Sandusky to work with children anyway. In 2001, when the Second Mile's executive director learned Sandusky was showering with children, his response was to advise Sandusky, when showering with children in the future, to wear a swimsuit.
Blehar also has written several posts dissecting the testimony of Mike McQueary, the redheaded former Penn State football assistant who testified he witnessed Sandusky molesting a boy in a Penn State shower and then told Paterno and the administrators.
First, McQueary testified the incident happened in March 2002, then records showed it was February 2001. Prosecutors, in charging documents, implied McQueary reported "anal intercourse" to Paterno; McQueary has testified he never would have used such explicit terms with Paterno, though he made clear he witnessed something sexual. In an email McQueary sent prosecutors, released years later, he wrote, "I feel my words were slightly twisted."
Paterno testified that McQueary reported "fondling" and something of "a sexual nature," but Blehar thinks the coach, who was 84 at the time of his testimony, misremembered what his young assistant told him a decade before.
Blehar believes McQueary described a more ambiguous scene in 2001 and that, when he learned nine years later from detectives that Sandusky was under investigation for abusing children, he recalled something far more vivid. This would explain why McQueary and no one with whom he spoke in 2001 decided to contact authorities on their own, said Blehar, citing testimony of State College physician Jonathan Dranov, one of the first people McQueary spoke with that night.
Dranov, a mandatory reporter of abuse because he's a doctor, has testified repeatedly that McQueary never said he witnessed a sex act. Instead, according to Dranov, McQueary described seeing a boy appear around a shower wall and an arm pull the boy back. McQueary described hearing "sexual sounds," Dranov said, and then saw Sandusky leave the shower.
When detectives came asking, Blehar theorizes, McQueary unwittingly became part of a conspiracy engineered by former Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, R. As Pennsylvania attorney general, Corbett oversaw the early stages of the Sandusky investigation, and as governor, Corbett was a member of the Penn State board that forced out Spanier, the school's president. Blehar points out Corbett accepted campaign donations from Second Mile board members and had feuded with Spanier over state funding.
While outlandish, such theories gained currency in Pennsylvania. In 2013, newly elected Attorney General Kathleen Kane, D, who suggested on the campaign trail that Corbett slow-walked the Sandusky investigation and donations from Second Mile officials played a role, appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the state's Sandusky investigation.
The inquiry concluded politics played no role in the Sandusky investigation but also uncovered the fact that attorney general staffers — including Frank Fina, the prosecutor who led the Sandusky case — shared pornography via office email. The ensuing scandal, known in Pennsylvania as "Porngate," tarnished several careers.
"No one involved with this case ever envisioned that taking a serial pedophile out of society was going to result in years' worth of professional and personal attacks by people who are basically lunatics," Fina said in a recent phone interview.
In 2014, Corbett became the first incumbent Pennsylvania governor in 40 years to lose a bid for reelection. In a phone interview, 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 they [Penn State alumni] won't accept that, will they?"
About a year ago, Corbett said, a man in a Penn State jacket approached him in a supermarket and said, "You're Tom Corbett, aren't you? ... We got even with you."
Blehar plans to write a book about the Sandusky case but expects he's years away from finishing his work.
Asked when alumni will move past the case, Blehar answered, without hesitation, "When we're all dead.
"Either that or when the truth comes out," he said. "Whichever happens first."
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In March, the Penn State coverup case finally went to trial. The case had been delayed by years of appeals over the prosecution's controversial decision to use Penn State's former general counsel, Cynthia Baldwin, as a key witness.
When the administrators were called to testify to the grand jury investigating Sandusky, none of them hired their own lawyers. Instead, they identified Baldwin, who had no experience representing clients before grand juries, as their lawyer, and she accompanied them as they testified.
But after Sandusky's arrest, when prosecutors started asking hard questions about difficulties getting records from Penn State, Baldwin decided to testify against the men, alleging they lied to her about whether they had records. New attorneys for the administrators appealed, arguing any problems law enforcement had getting records were Baldwin's fault and she was violating attorney-client privilege by testifying against them.
An appeals court eventually agreed Baldwin couldn't testify, and threw out most of the charges.
Days before the trial, in a surprise move, Curley and Schultz each pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of child endangerment, prompting speculation they would finally admit to a coverup.
When Curley and Schultz appeared on the stand, however, they said the same things their lawyers had said for five years. Paterno had told them someone saw Sandusky "horsing around" with a boy. They didn't think Sandusky was a pedophile, they thought he had "boundary issues." When they met with McQueary, he did not describe witnessing a sexual assault.
Curley, to the frustration of the prosecution, didn't recall many important conversations from 2001, including his meeting with Paterno, after which Curley decided not to contact authorities.
As Spanier's lawyer made his closing argument that there was no coverup at Penn State, he displayed for the jury the same email chain that, five years earlier, Freeh had declared "the most important evidence" proving a coverup.
"That's basically all the [prosecution] has on its claim of a criminal conspiracy," attorney Sam Silver said. "... They did not talk about hiding anything ... They concluded that they would go outside of Penn State to an independent, nonprofit organization that was Jerry Sandusky's employer and had as its mission the welfare of children.
"Is that a plan we would all make today knowing what we all know today? I don't need to answer that question."
Silver then listed 12 people who knew in 2001 that an assistant had been disturbed by something he saw in a shower involving Sandusky and a boy, none of whom said anyone at Penn State urged them not to contact authorities.
"That is a heck of a way to pull off a criminal conspiracy," Silver said.
Prosecutors alleged Penn State officials downplayed the incident when informing the Second Mile, in the hopes the charity wouldn't make its own inquiry.
"These were smart men, and they were concerned about their image and the image of that school," lead prosecutor Laura Ditka said. "And their plan resulted in a sea of carnage left behind ... Find him guilty of everything."
The jury acquitted Spanier of conspiracy and convicted him of misdemeanor child endangerment. A case that started with each man facing five felonies and 39 years in prison concluded with three misdemeanor convictions. Curley spent 2 1/2 months in jail. Schultz served two months. Spanier is appealing.
Prosecutors celebrated the verdict.
"The Office of Attorney General is 4-for-4 in the Penn State sexual abuse cases," a spokesperson said.
Freeh declared complete vindication. "For over 12 years, these men actively protected a notorious pedophile ... they decided together to protect this monster rather than report him to the police," he wrote in a statement.
Alumni had a different perspective.
"No one was convicted of a conspiracy," said alumni trustee Alice Pope, a psychology professor at St. John's University. "So there was no coverup."
After the trial, alumni trustee Al Lord, former chief executive of Sallie Mae, emailed a reporter that he was "running out of sympathy for ... so-called victims." When the comment was published, two board members called on Lord to resign.
Lord refused, releasing a statement apologizing while clarifying his remark was not directed at the eight men who testified at Sandusky's trial, but at some of the others who reached private settlements with the university.
"It was certainly not intended to offend real victims," Lord wrote. "Real victims and alleged victims were among the 30 or so recipients of nearly $100 million distributed by Penn State."
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Last year, a court unsealed documents from litigation between Penn State and its insurance company that appeared damning for Paterno. One man testified in a deposition that Sandusky molested him on campus in 1976, when he was a teenage boy, and Paterno brushed him off when he told the coach about the incident a day later. The Paterno family responded with a public statement disputing the man's account as "containing numerous specific elements ... that defy all logic."
Other men alleged Penn State officials ignored assaults in the 1980s. Penn State settled with all of them, paying six- and, in some cases, seven-figure amounts.
When the documents were released, Penn State President Eric Barron denounced news stories about them with a statement that, essentially, acknowledged the school's board had spent tens of millions of dollars without making an effort to corroborate claims.
"None of these allegations ... has been substantiated in a court of law or in any other process to test their veracity," Barron wrote.
As part of the litigation, the insurance company brought in a lawyer with expertise in sex abuse cases to examine how Penn State vetted claims before paying alleged victims.
"It appears as though Penn State made little effort, if any, to verify the credibility of the claims," wrote the lawyer, who noted a surprising lack of documentation. The lawyer speculated "a concern about publicity and a desire to resolve the matters very quickly" influenced the process.
Among those Penn State paid was a former Second Mile participant who, before Sandusky's trial, approached law enforcement and said he was the boy McQueary saw in the shower. Former prosecutor Fina said he didn't believe the man's claims, noting he was too old to match McQueary's description and the man submitted a statement only after McQueary testified.
"It was like someone sat down with McQueary's transcript and wrote the statement. It was absurd," Fina said.
One man alleged that in 1988, Penn State assistant Kevin O'Dea walked in while Sandusky was touching him improperly in a locker room and O'Dea did nothing. O'Dea, now an assistant with the New Orleans Saints, said in a statement through his attorney this was a "complete fabrication" and pointed out he didn't work at Penn State until 1991. Penn State officials never contacted O'Dea before settling with the alleged victim, his attorney said.
A copy of the settlement agreement Penn State required alleged victims to sign — also made public last year — renewed controversy among alumni who believe the Second Mile dodged penalties for its role in Sandusky's abuse.
The settlement agreements required victims to release several organizations, and anyone connected to them, from lawsuits, including the Second Mile.
"That's not normal. Why would Penn State care about the Second Mile?" said Jonathan Little, an Indianapolis lawyer who specializes in representing sex abuse victims. Little said he has never encountered a defendant requesting a liability release for a separate organization.
Kenneth Feinberg, a mediator Penn State hired to assist with the process, said the university structured the settlements to prevent a series of events in which a victim settled with Penn State, then sued the Second Mile, prompting the Second Mile to countersue Penn State, landing the university back in litigation.
Lord, the former alumni trustee, is skeptical of this explanation.
"That is 2,000 percent" nonsense, Lord said. "There's only one reason [for the release], and that was to protect ... members of the board who were involved at the Second Mile."
The trustee who chaired the board committee that oversaw negotiations was Ira Lubert, a real estate and private equity executive. Lubert is a longtime friend of former Second Mile board chair Bob Poole; the two share a suite at Penn State football games. In the 2000s, state records show, Lubert was also part-owner of a summer camp the Second Mile visited. (Poole and former Second Mile executive director Jack Raykovitz did not respond to multiple requests to comment. In 2012, the Second Mile shuttered and another charity took over some of its programs and assets.)
In a phone interview, Lubert denied his Second Mile connections influenced negotiations. Penn State spokesperson Lawrence Lokman, in an email, termed it "an absurd stretch of reality" for anyone to consider Lubert had a conflict of interest.
Nicholas Mirkay, a University of Hawaii law school professor and nonprofit governance expert, said Lubert's relationship with the Second Mile gave the appearance of a potential conflict and board members were right to question it. Mirkay found it surprising Penn State leadership allowed a board member with even a tangential connection to the Second Mile to lead settlement negotiations.
The lawyer for the man alleging abuse in 1976 and other alleged victims strongly disagreed Penn State made little effort to verify claims.
"My 13 clients were HEAVILY vetted," attorney Slade McLaughlin wrote in an email. "I think Penn State played it smart in resolving the cases and getting them into their rearview mirror as soon as possible."
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Last year, Penn State's administration tried to discreetly commemorate the 50th anniversary of Paterno's first game as coach. It was the first time the school had officially honored Paterno since he walked off the field Oct. 29, 2011, after a 10-7 win over Illinois that unexpectedly became his last.
National news outlets pilloried the school as tone-deaf. The student newspaper slammed the decision, writing, "This is our Penn State. It is a Penn State without Joe Paterno."
Some alumni, meantime, praised the move while criticizing the university for not doing more, such as having a role in the ceremony for Sue Paterno, Joe's widow, who still lives a few blocks away from campus.
In early September, Franco Harris — the former Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers star and outspoken Paterno loyalist — returned to State College, to attend a game against Pitt. As he lumbered across campus, Harris couldn't manage five steps without getting stopped by an alum wanting a picture.
"Thanks for sticking up for Joe," one alum from the 1960s told Harris.
Students, meanwhile, walked by, unaware of the NFL legend in their midst.
While references to Paterno have mostly disappeared from campus, Paterno was omnipresent in alumni tailgates the next day, in life-size cardboard cutouts and messages written on signs, hats and T-shirts: "409," "Honor Him," and "You Can't Erase History."
Students passed through in packs, many in shirts that said "Unrivaled," the motto Coach James Franklin introduced a few years ago to replace "Success with Honor."
As Jay Paterno walked through, some alumni cheered and called out his name.
A 49-year-old father of five, Jay Paterno has been unable to find a coaching job since 2011. He still lives in State College, dividing his time between writing and several business interests, and ran for Penn State's board, in part, to defend his father's legacy. He adamantly maintains his father didn't know the truth about Sandusky, pointing to the only piece of evidence he thinks matters: His father allowed his children, and his grandchildren, to spend time around Sandusky, until months before his arrest.
"At some point the administration needs to say, 'We got it wrong,' " Jay Paterno said. "The fact that my dad was unaware of what Jerry was, that shouldn't be a scarlet letter."
Paterno acknowledged his family's relationship with Penn State administration is "strained," but he expressed hope that will change.
"My family's love for this university has never wavered and never will," Paterno said. "The people in the current administration will be gone at some point, and Penn State will continue on."