STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania — Penn State's most powerful leaders showed "total and consistent disregard" for victims of child sex abuse and failed to protect children, according to the findings of a long-awaited internal review over how the university handled a scandal involving its former defensive coordinator.
In fact, the report says several former officials "empowered" Jerry Sandusky to continue his abuse, and investigators say legendary head football coach Joe Paterno could have stopped the attacks had he done more.
In a statement released along with the 267-page report, Louis Freeh, the former FBI director and federal judge who spearheaded the review, blasted several top former officials at the school, accusing them of forging an agreement to conceal Sandusky's attacks.
"There are more red flags here than you can count," said Freeh, who added that the abuse occurred just "steps away" from where Paterno worked in the university's Lasch Building.
"Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State," Freeh wrote. "The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized."
He went on to name four former school officials -- former President Graham Spanier, former Vice President Gary Schultz, Paterno, and former athletic director Tim Curley -- saying they "never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky's victims until after Sandusky's arrest."
Their failure "to protect against a child sexual predator harming children" lasted "more than a decade," the full report says.
"They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky's victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being, especially by not attempting to determine the identity of the child whom Sandusky assaulted in the Lasch Building in 2001. Further, they exposed this child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky, who was the only one who knew the child's identity, of what (Mike) McQueary saw in the shower on the night of February 9, 2001."
Then-Penn State graduate assistant McQueary reported to Paterno that he had seen what appeared to be a sexual attack involving Sandusky and a boy in the shower room on that night.
The report also says the four men, "unchecked by the board of trustees that did not perform its oversight duties, empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access to the university's facilities and affiliation with the university's prominent football program. Indeed, that continued access provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims. Some coaches, administrators and football program staff members ignored the red flags of Sandusky's behaviors and no one warned the public about him."
The Penn State board of trustees issued a statement saying it is reviewing "the findings and recommendations. We expect a comprehensive analysis of our policies, procedures and controls related to identifying and reporting crimes and misconduct, including failures or gaps that may have allowed alleged misconduct to go undetected or unreported. We will provide our initial response later today."
The board added that it is "convening an internal team" to analyze the findings.
The report says investigators conducted 430 interviews of "key university personnel and other knowledgeable individuals."
"We tried to speak to Sandusky; he did not want to speak to us," Freeh said at a news conference.
More than 3.5 million "pieces of pertinent electronic data and documents" were analyzed, the report says.
The report found that janitors who were aware of the abuse took no action, out of fear.
"They witness what I think in the report is probably the most horrific rape that's described," Freeh told reporters. "And what do they do? They panic." One janitor, a Korean War veteran, said it was "the worst thing he's ever seen." He and other janitors were "alarmed and shocked," but were afraid that if they reported it they'd be fired.
"They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States. ... If that's the culture on the bottom, God help the culture at the top."
The review casts a dark shadow over the school's storied football program and over the career of Paterno, who was widely beloved for bringing Penn State football to national prominence. He died on January 22.
Attorneys for Spanier, Schultz, Curley, Paterno's family, and Sandusky did not immediately respond to CNN's requests for comment.
Barbara Dorris, a spokeswoman for a group called the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), applauded the work of investigators and called for the former top school officials who were implicated in the probe to be prosecuted.
Investigators found that even before May 1998, "several staff members and football coaches regularly observed Sandusky showering with young boys," but "none of the individuals interviewed notified their superiors of this behavior," according to the report.
It also found that university police "and the Department of Public Welfare responded promptly to the report by a young boy's mother of a possible sexual assault by Sandusky" in 1998, and top university officials were "kept informed of the investigation."
A year later in 1999, Paterno, Spanier, Schultz, and Curley decided to allow Sandusky to retire, "not as a suspected child predator, but as a valued member of the Penn State football legacy, with future 'visibility' at Penn State and ways 'to continue to work with young people through Penn State,' essentially granting him license to bring boys to campus facilities for 'grooming' as targets for his assaults. Sandusky retained unlimited access to University facilities until November 2011," the report says.
He was awarded emeritus status at the university in 1999 -- which provided Sandusky greater access to school facilities -- despite what Provost Rodney Erickson described as an "uneasiness" because of the ex-coach's "low academic title."
The university also approved a one-time lump sum payment of $168,000 to Sandusky in June of that year. Top school officials said "they had never known the university to provide this type of payment to a retiring employee," according to the report.
An effort to avoid bad publicity "is the most significant, but not the only, cause for this failure to protect child victims and report to authorities," the investigation found.
The scandal, which rocked the nation, led to the dismissal of Paterno, Spanier, Schultz and Curley.
Sandusky was convicted in June of sexually abusing young boys over a 15-year period. He maintains his innocence.
Freeh's internal investigation is separate from criminal investigations that have resulted in Sandusky's conviction and charges against Curley and Schultz over perjury and failing to report the abuse. No trial date has been set for the two ex administrators.
The cost of the investigation "is estimated to be in the millions," but is covered by the university's insurance policy, said Penn State spokesman David LaTorre.
"No one, no one, is above scrutiny," said trustee Kenneth Frazier, head of the committee addressing the scandal, when the review began in November 2011.
At the time, Freeh said to expect recommendations to improve possible leadership failures at the university "that allowed anyone to prey on children with impunity."
"Our mandate is clear," added Freeh. "We have been tasked to investigate this matter fully, fairly, and completely."
Those interviewed in the investigation included a former athletic director at nearby Juniata College.
In 2010, Sandusky requested to work as an unpaid football coach at Juniata College after retiring from Penn State in 1999, authorities said.
A school background check turned up an investigation into the former defensive coordinator as well as a "do not hire" warning, prompting Juniata College officials to reject Sandusky's interest in the program, they said.
In June, eight young men testified in court, often in disturbingly graphic detail, of how Sandusky forced them to engage in sexual acts in various places, including in hotel rooms, the basement of his home and in the Penn State coaches' locker room.
In court documents, prosecutors say they have e-mails from university officials that allegedly contradict grand jury testimony of Curley and Schultz,
The alleged e-mails, which CNN obtained exclusively, were among other documents, including a Sandusky file maintained by Schultz. The Freeh review discovered the documents and turned them over to state prosecutors as part of ongoing investigations, according to both the university and prosecutors.
One of the alleged e-mails suggests Paterno had a previously undisclosed conversation with Curley about the shower incident from 2001.
On February 26, Penn State's vice president purportedly wrote to Curley about a plan to contact Sandusky, referred to only as "the subject," alert child welfare authorities and inform Second Mile, the charity the ex-coach founded for disadvantaged children, according to the purported exchange. Neither Sandusky nor the charity was mentioned by name. They were referred to as "the subject" and "the group."
After Curley spoke with Paterno, however, the athletic director allegedly told the school president that he had changed his mind about the best course of action to pursue.
"After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesterday, I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps," he allegedly wrote the following day.
Instead of alerting authorities, Curley apparently wrote that he would prefer meeting with Sandusky, telling him they knew about another incident in 1998, and offering him professional help. He then suggested notifying the charity "at some point" if Sandusky is cooperative, and "maybe" child welfare officials.
Paterno did not report the shower incident to police.
"We determined that his decision to do his minimum legal duty and not to do more to follow up constituted a failure of leadership by Coach Paterno," the board of trustees said in a report that explained his firing.
That decision prompted rioting by Penn State students, overturning a news van and clashing with police, who used tear gas to break up throngs of angry protesters.
Wick Sollers, a lawyer for the Paterno family, issued a statement following CNN's disclosure of the purported e-mails asserting that "the e-mails in question did not originate with Joe Paterno or go to him as he never personally utilized e-mail."
Sollers noted that Paterno, "from the beginning ... warned against a rush to judgment in this case. Coach Paterno testified truthfully, to the best of his recollection, in the one brief appearance he made before the grand jury. As he testified, when informed of an incident involving Jerry Sandusky in 2001, Coach Paterno followed university procedures and promptly and fully informed his superiors. He believed the matter would be thoroughly and professionally investigated and he did not interfere with or attempt to compromise any investigation."
The Pennsylvania attorney general's office is also investigating what Penn State knew about the 2001 incident and how it was handled.
Meanwhile, Spanier, the ousted president, has maintained that he was never informed of any incident involving Sandusky that described sexual abuse or criminality.
Spanier's attorneys have said he "wanted the Freeh Group to create an accurate report and has been determined to assist in any way he can."
According to the board of trustees, Spanier was fired in November because "he failed to meet his leadership responsibilities."