Graham Spanier, the former Penn State University president who stepped down in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, told ABC News today that he was a victim of child abuse so severe that he required several surgeries to correct the damage.
His history as a victim, he said, was a deeply personal rejoinder to those critics who accuse him of trying to cover up Sandusky's crimes and not caring about the children.
"I've never met anyone who has had a higher level of awareness [about child abuse,]" Spanier said in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Josh Elliott.
Spanier, 64, is on a campaign to resurrect his once pristine reputation. Though not charged with a crime, the findings of an independent investigation accuse him of failing to prevent a "child sexual predator harming children for over a decade."
The abuse he sustained at the hands of his father, a working class immigrant, began when he was a child and continued through his adolescence. Spanier said he has had four surgeries in his adulthood to correct problems with his breathing, face and head as a result of the injuries.
"It resulted in, of course, some emotional scarring, but also some substantial physical damage," he said of the abuse.
Before his tenure as a university administrator, Spanier was a professor specializing in the study of dysfunctional families and child abuse, an interest he said resulted directly from his childhood.
Spanier objects to the findings of the Freeh Report calling it "wrong in its conclusions" and denying the accusation that he "conspired to conceal a known child predator."
Spanier insists when an assistant football coach reported seeing Sandusky acting suspiciously with a boy in the team showers in 2001, he was only made aware that Sandusky had engaged in "horseplay" with a child.
An independent investigation ordered by the unviersity, the so-called Freeh Report, and others have questioned why Spanier did not further investigate Sandusky after learning even that information.
"Never in my time as president of Penn State did I ever receive a report or even a hint that Jerry Sandusky was engaged in child abuse, a sexual act, criminal activity or anything resembling that with any child. Had I known that, or even suspected it, I would have forcefully intervened. But I never heard a report like that," he said.
Spanier said he had only met Sandusky once and was only marginally involved when in 1998 and again in 2001 reports were made that Sandusky was seen engaged in inappropriate behavior with a child.
"I do not get involved in police matters. I always had a very hands-off attitude and issues pertaining to people were dealt with by the police, by human resources, or by supervisors in various areas of the university," he said of the 1998 incident. He also noted that police, the state Department of Public Welfare and prosecutors all determined that Sandusky had not molested a child at that time.
In 2001, however, Spanier was copied on an email about another Sandusky incident, witnessed by assistant coach Mike McQueary who heard sexual noises and saw an underage boy in the shower.
In emails two administrators, Athletic Director Tim Curley and now retired Vice President Gary Schultz, proposed not alerting the authorities but instead letting Sandusky off with a warning and the promise that he would get "professional help."
Spanier agreed to that plan. However, he noted in an email that by not bringing the accusations to police they would be "vulnerable for not having reported it."
Penn State's Ex-President Fights for His Reputation
That phrase has dogged Spanier and was crucial in the Freeh's reports assessment of what he knew and how he failed to act.
"'Vulnerable' was not best choice of a term," Spanier told ABC News, adding that "it was a reaction to the possibility that we didn't want this to happen."
Spanier said he had "no recollection of being concerned" that the school might be held legally liable.
Spanier recalled the anger with the university when the grand jury indicted Sandusky, leading ultimately to Spanier's demotion to professor and the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno.
"I opposed the firing [of Paterno]... There could be riots, it could be a rush to judgment, they knew it was his last season" and Paterno should have been allowed to finish the season, he said.
Spanier said he and Paterno had secretly signed agreement that the coach would retire at the end of 2012.
In July, Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of abuse against 10 boys. Curley and Schultz are awaiting trial on charges of perjury and failing to report child abuse.