Also facing judgment in the Sandusky trial: Penn State

The child sex-abuse trial of Jerry Sandusky, left, begins Tuesday. Right, Penn State President Rodney Erickson says "we all . . . want to see answers."
The child sex-abuse trial of Jerry Sandusky, left, begins Tuesday. Right, Penn State President Rodney Erickson says "we all . . . want to see answers." (Left, MATT ROURKE / AP; right, APRIL SAUL / Staff)
Posted: June 05, 2012

When jury selection starts Tuesday in tiny Bellefonte, Centre County, former football coach Jerry Sandusky won't be the only one on trial.

Pennsylvania State University, a world-class center of teaching and learning, an economic behemoth of spending and hiring, and a place where Sandusky allegedly committed terrible crimes against children, faces its own judgment - in the court of public opinion.

The trial promises to bring fresh scrutiny to the issues of what university officials knew, when they knew it, and how they responded.

"Part of what's going on trial," said public-relations specialist Michael Smith, an associate professor at La Salle University, "is Penn State's internal system for handling complaints like this."

Sandusky was arrested Nov. 5 and charged with molesting at least eight boys over a 15-year period, igniting a career-wrecking, life-altering scandal that made people ask how such horror could have taken root at such a prestigious university.

"Yes, there are a lot of questions people have about everything that happened," Penn State president Rodney Erickson said in an interview last week. "We all, myself included, want to see answers come out of this trial."

Whatever might emerge, Erickson and others say, it's also true that Penn State has taken big steps to make amends and restore its once glossy image. It has given more than $2.6 million to child-abuse programs and to found a new child-protection institute at its Hershey Medical Center, and has pledged to be a world leader in research and treatment of child neglect and sexual abuse.

Erickson ticked off signs of the school's resilience:

Admission applications are up 2 percent over last year to a record 115,000. Donations have held steady despite awful publicity. Research grants to faculty are poised to hit a record $700 million.

At the same time, however, Erickson said he had received letters from people saying they had planned to put Penn State in their wills - but changed their minds. He's sure the scandal also has caused some donors to hold back on large gifts.

"This is a situation no university had ever experienced to this degree," Erickson said. "It was new territory in a lot of ways."

The trial will draw dozens of reporters, photographers, and TV camera crews to the quiet borough of Bellefonte, 10 miles northeast of State College. Part of the interest springs from the case's multiple societal interests: crime, sports, education, law, child safety. But it also has to do with this: Penn State is Penn State - a far-reaching, $4.1 billion-a-year university and perennial football power.

It's uncertain how long the proceedings will last. What's clear are the fissures that continue to run deep in the Penn State community.

Four days after Sandusky's arrest, Penn State's governing board fired iconic head football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham B. Spanier amid raging controversy over their handling of allegations against Sandusky. Paterno may have fulfilled legal requirements to report suspected abuse, but failed in his moral responsibility to intervene, State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said at the time.

Paterno's dismissal provoked its own backlash, as students and alumni angrily questioned how the trustees could fire a devoted employee without so much as a hearing. When Paterno died of lung cancer in January, board members stayed away from the campus memorial service, lest their presence provoke an ugly incident.

In the May board election, activist groups backed new candidates for alumni seats.

"With every new piece of news that comes out regarding this trial, it seems to validate that [there was a] rush to judgment," said Maribeth Roman Schmidt, a 1988 graduate and spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, formed after Paterno's firing. "We had a blind trust in the leadership of the school, and by that I mean the trustees. . . . The genie is out of the lamp, because we're watching now."

Sandusky, 68, has been under house arrest since he was charged. Additional charges involving two more victims were filed in December.

Sandusky began coaching at Penn State in 1969. Eight years later, he started the Second Mile, a group foster home for boys that eventually grew into an agency dedicated to children from dysfunctional families.

Prosecutors say Sandusky met several victims through the Second Mile.

Once seen as Paterno's coaching heir, he retired in 1999, but maintained emeritus status, with continued access to school facilities.

In 2000, according to prosecution filings, a Penn State janitor saw Sandusky performing oral sex on an 11- to 13-year-old boy in the football locker-room showers. The janitor told his boss, and he and other workers discussed fears of losing their jobs if the incident was reported. It wasn't.

In 2001, Mike McQueary, then a Penn State football graduate assistant, allegedly saw Sandusky anally rape a 10-year-old boy in the locker room. McQueary told Paterno, and later informed athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz. Outside authorities were never notified. Curley and Schultz have pleaded not guilty to charges of perjury and failing to report sexual assault of a child.

"Something fell apart there," said retired Penn State sports-ethics instructor David Dimmick, who taught for 33 years at the school. "Jerry was a coach. And was a successful coach. And he was part of the university."

For Dimmick, like many at Penn State, the drama's central figures are not distant characters. Curley was once his student. Spanier is a friend.

"But I worry," he said, "that something went up the chain of command, and either those guys were incredibly naive, or the information they got was not, in their minds, serious enough. Having said that, I would think the mere chance of child abuse, you call out the troops."

The jury will be chosen from Centre County, where Penn State is revered and football practically a religion.

Erickson said he wasn't sure if Penn State would assign a staff member to sit in the courtroom and monitor the proceedings.

"It's possible we may have someone there just as an observer," he said.

Since the charges were brought against Sandusky, he said, the school strengthened its regulations regarding the supervision of minors involved in its programs. It has trained employees to recognize and report child abuse. It also has retained former FBI director and federal judge Louis Freeh to investigate how Sandusky's alleged crimes could have occurred - and what should be done to prevent anything similar from happening again.

Erickson said he expected that inquiry to examine the accountability of university officials and perhaps even the operation and configuration of the board.

The school also has sought to work beyond its own environs, donating more than $2.6 million to child-abuse-prevention efforts. That includes $1.1 million to create the Center for the Protection of Children at the Hershey hospital, and $1.5 million pledged to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

The money comes from Penn State's share of Big Ten football bowl funds, which totaled $2,616,184.

"We are and will become even more of a world leader in this area," Erickson said. "We feel that is an appropriate response in light of the allegations."


Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JeffGammage.

 

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