Tuesday, May 07, 2013
More on Penn State & Accountability
I’ve written extensively on the contrasting approaches to accountability between Penn State and Duke. The Penn State trustees, although they remained asleep at the switch for years, at the very least acted aggressively once the Sandusky allegations came to light. In contrast to Duke, which has done everything possible for several years to prevent a full-scale investigation of why the administration and so many “activist” faculty members so badly botched the lacrosse case, Penn State’s trustees gave an outside investigator full access to all university documents, including e-mails, involving the Sandusky cover-up. The resulting Freeh Report, of course, exposed some troubling things about Penn State’s campus culture and past decisionmaking process—but the willingness to commission the report suggested an acceptance of accountability that’s been totally lacking at Duke.
The Freeh Report, however, has produced a ferocious backlash on campus and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Pennsylvania. A handful of elected PSU trustees, led by Anthony Lubrano, have challenged the report’s validity, raising dark hints of denial of due process. PSU faculty leaders embarrassed themselves by challenging Freeh’s conclusions while failing to produce even one piece of evidence to corroborate their assertions. The state’s governor, Tom Corbett, initially accepted the Freeh Report, but then backtracked and sued the NCAA. (That Corbett, one of the nation’s most unpopular governors, faces re-election next year appears to have figured into his thinking.) And various state legislators criticized the NCAA for not spending the entire fine to which Penn State’s leadership agreed on matters in Pennsylvania.
The backlash raises some serious questions as to whether Penn State leaders, and the Pennsylvania politicians that they serve, are abandoning their initial, admirable acceptance of accountability for the Sandusky cover-up. This question has resurfaced in a different form in a bill currently before the Pennsylvania state legislature.
The bill seeks to extend the statute of limitations for victims of the Sandusky scandal, so as to allow them to file civil claims against Penn State and Sandusky’s charity organizations. In many states, such measures have generated opposition from the Catholic Church, since they threatened to expand the Church’s legal liability from the sexual abuse scandal. But in past cases, invariably a combination of public outrage, an understanding that many victims of child sexual abuse take years or even decades before coming forward, and a simple desire to do the right thing have led legislatures to extend the time period for filing suits.
Extending the statute of limitations beyond 30-year-olds, of course, poses potentially problematic questions for Penn State. In general, the narrative around the Sandusky scandal has focused on events of 1998 (when a local prosecutor elected not to file charges against Sandusky, after an investigation of which the PSU leadership was aware) and 2001 (when then-graduate assistant saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the football building’s showers, told Joe Paterno and then two senior administrators, only to see the PSU leadership decline to report the matter to the police).
Given its charge, the Freeh Report focused exclusively on these events and their aftermath. It thus never explored exactly when Sandusky started his pattern of abuse. If, as seems entirely plausible, he was engaging in abuse throughout his time at Penn State, that would mean at least some of his victims might need the law to pass in order to file a claim.
What, then, will Pennsylvania legislators do? Both state politicians and the PSU leadership have repeatedly expressed a willingness to treat all of Sandusky’s victims fairly—which would suggest that the bill should sail through to passage. Yet conceding that Sandusky might well have engaged in abuse throughout his Penn State tenure would undermine all but the most fanatic apologists for the Paterno football program; the (preposterous) claim that Paterno was too old or out-of-touch to effectively move against Sandusky would be entirely untenable as an explanation for any inaction by Paterno in the 1980s.
Far better, from the perspective of any ultra-Penn State loyalists in the legislature, to not look too far back into the past. But if they abandon accountability by declining to support the current legislation, they’ll effectively contribute, in their own way, to the cover-up that brought down the former PSU administration.