At PSU, some healing - but not over Freeh report

Workers cover the statue of football coach Joe Paterno before its removal from the Pennsylvania State University campus. Now there has been discussion of honoring Paterno again in some way.
Workers cover the statue of football coach Joe Paterno before its removal from the Pennsylvania State University campus. Now there has been discussion of honoring Paterno again in some way. (CHRISTOPHER WEDDLE / Associated Press)
Posted: July 08, 2013

Pennsylvania State University trustee Keith Eckel says attitudes toward him and his fellow board members seem to have softened. He no longer gets death threats.

"We're gradually moving forward," the Lackawanna County farmer said.

One year ago, former FBI Director Louis Freeh released the results of an inquiry intended to provide a full and factual account of how the leaders of Pennsylvania's largest university handled the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse crisis. School administrators and Penn State backers hoped it would be a platform on which the school could unite, heal, and go ahead.

Instead, the Freeh report incensed alumni already upset by the abrupt dismissal of revered football coach Joe Paterno in November 2011, fueling what has become a ceaseless barrage of criticism aimed at the board.

Trustees could face more protest when they meet at the Fayette County campus Friday, the anniversary of the report's publication.

"We want them to completely repudiate the Freeh report," said Maribeth Schmidt, spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a group of alumni, students, and supporters who say the board meekly accepted that the school deserved blame for Sandusky's crimes. "We're looking for the board to stand up and admit they handled this crisis wrong from the beginning."

The group, which says the trustees hired Freeh "to create a false narrative intended to back up their rush to judgment," has won four of six alumni seats and developed a plan to claim three more on the 32-person board.

In responding to the criticism, board chairman Keith Masser said that in the last year, Penn State has made remarkable progress on multiple fronts - reforming safety, legal, and governance practices, and acting to become a national leader in the study and prevention of child abuse.

Outside groups including Moody's Investors Service and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education have praised the school's effort and achievements, he noted.

"We're stronger and we're better," said Masser, who runs a Schuylkill County farm.

Asked if the board made any mistakes, he said: "It's been continuous improvement."

The 267-page Freeh report is damning in its exhaustive detail. It used e-mails, interviews, and long-hidden notes to conclude that the most powerful men at Penn State conspired for more than a decade to keep quiet allegations that former assistant football coach Sandusky sexually abused children.

Fearing damaging publicity, Paterno, university president Graham B. Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and vice president Gary Schultz "repeatedly concealed critical facts" that enabled Sandusky to prey on boys for years, the report said.

Sandusky is serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence. Paterno died of cancer at 85 in January 2012.

The three administrators face trial on charges of perjury, failure to report suspected abuse, and related offenses.

The Freeh report, undertaken at the direction of Penn State trustees, did more than darken the reputations of four university leaders. It became the basis for punishing sanctions, including a $60 million fine imposed by the NCAA, penalties that continue to inflame alumni. The report also offered 119 recommendations for tightening controls and oversight at all levels of the school. Almost all of the recommendations have been implemented.

Unresolved, though, are lawsuits against Penn State by Sandusky's victims that are sure to cost millions. The bulk could be settled this month, officials said. The federal Department of Education continues its inquiry into Penn State's alleged failure to report crime on campus. And the Paterno family is suing to overturn the NCAA sanctions.

Meanwhile, the NCAA is pressing a suit against Gov. Corbett, who signed a law to keep the $60 million in Pennsylvania. And Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, is investigating how Corbett, a Republican, handled the Sandusky case when he was attorney general.

The implications reach beyond State College.

Nearly half of the voters in a new Quinnipiac poll said the Penn State situation would be very or somewhat important in deciding how they vote for governor next year. Senate Democrats called last month for faster reform of the board of trustees.

The trustees have made some changes to be more open - including removing voting power from the positions of university president and the governor, and initiating a public comment period at board meetings.

Still, the board faces concerns from legislators.

"Penn State students, faculty, and alumni deserve better than lukewarm attempts to restore full confidence in the board," said State Sen. John Yudichak (D., Luzerne), "and the taxpayers of Pennsylvania deserve nothing less than a full commitment to accountability and transparency."

Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) has sought a new law that would reduce the board's size, set term limits, and curtail the power of the president.

"It's going to play out for a long time," said Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel University sports-management professor who studies the Sandusky scandal. "There's such a concerted effort to hold board members accountable, and all of that is connecting to political issues in the state."

The Freeh report made instant national news.

"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 said at a news conference on the day of the release.

Ten days later, the university took down the bronze statue of Paterno that stood outside Beaver Stadium. The next day, the NCAA pounded Penn State with the $60 million fine, stripped the school of football scholarships, banned postseason bowl games, and vacated its football victories from 1998 to 2011.

Paterno's supporters insisted that the coach would not have covered up child abuse. When they have blasted the board, the trustees have for the most part sat and taken it, declining to debate.

The pro-Paterno forces have their own analysis to cite. A family-sponsored study, released in February, sought to exonerate the coach and repudiate what his widow, Sue, called Freeh's "extraordinary attack on Joe's character and integrity." Paterno-report authors, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, denounced the Freeh report as inaccurate.

"Had Joe Paterno believed that Jerry Sandusky was a child-molesting monster," the report said, "no amount of concern for bad publicity would have motivated him to conceal it."

Freeh called the Paterno report "self-serving" and said it did nothing to change the facts established by his inquiry. Freeh declined to comment last week.

The impact of the report on school operations has been transformative.

The university accepted all but one of the scores of recommendations, declining only to create a vice president for human resources who would report directly to the president. Instead, the school elevated its human-resources officer to vice president, with independent access to the president.

Penn State has created watchdog positions, adopted myriad changes in reporting procedures, and increased background checks on adults who work with young people. It has hired a chief compliance and ethics officer and an athletic-integrity officer, and will bring on a youth-programs coordinator.

"To have undergone the kind of change that Penn State has is quite dramatic," said David Gray, its senior vice president for finance and business.

It's not the imposition of stricter oversight that upsets alumni and some board members. They are angry over the Freeh findings that blamed Paterno and the other leaders. They dispute the conclusion that a dominant football culture contributed to the disaster. And they make sure the board continues to hear about it.

In March, about 30 football lettermen appeared before the trustees to call for reconsideration of Freeh's conclusions.

"A lot of things he was bringing up were conjecture," said Brian Masella, among scores of former players who support the Paterno family lawsuit that seeks to overturn the NCAA sanctions.

He believes the trustees deliberately sought a harsh report as protection against litigation and to justify their handling of Paterno's firing. The coach's dismissal three days after Sandusky was arrested touched off a student riot in State College.

"The silence, the misdirection, the lies, it has got to stop," said Masella, a retired New Jersey teacher. "We want the truth no matter where it takes us."

Trustee Paul Silvis, an entrepreneur appointed to the board in 2010 who is now seeking the vice chairmanship, said he is eager to work with the newer, alumni-supported trustees. The trick will be to find areas of compromise.

"They have Penn State's interest in mind," he said. "It will be a great day when we're not talking about football, when we're talking about how do we make education more affordable. It will be a great day when we can move the university forward in a lot of other areas."

It's unclear when that day might come.

Barbara Doran, a private wealth portfolio manager elected to an alumni seat in May, said old and new trustees can come together - but first the board must denounce the Freeh report findings that criticized Penn State's culture and values.

"That would go a long way - and not only saying, 'Sorry we made a mistake,' but, 'We have a plan to do something about it,' " she said.

How Penn State evolves in the next year will depend largely on what occurs during the criminal trials, she said. Once those proceedings end, she wants the university to give Paterno the honor she believes he deserves.

In interviews with trustees last week, there were signs that support for the Freeh report's conclusions has weakened. Sentiment seems to have evolved from the time when university president Rodney Erickson said leaving Paterno's statue in place would be "a recurring wound" for abuse victims.

Board president Masser said of the report: "We didn't ask for the conclusions. We got them. ... We are trying to bifurcate the conclusions from the recommendations. Let the court decide on the conclusions. It's not our role as a board."

He agrees that after the trials, the board should consider honoring Paterno.

For months after the coach's death, board members received threatening e-mails and letters. Eckel got an anonymous call telling him: "The coach died. And you will too."

Now, he said, he's optimistic about the future, believing the newcomers to the board have the school's best interests at heart. The Sandusky scandal, the Freeh report - it's been traumatic, he said.

"Only time can allow this type of situation to reach a satisfactory conclusion," Eckel said. "It won't be quick."


Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-4906, jgammage@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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