SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine dismissed as “patently false” allegations that he molested two former ball boys for years, and the university chancellor vowed Friday to “do everything in our power to find the truth.”
The school immediately placed Fine on administrative leave “in light of the new allegations” that surfaced Thursday, just two weeks after the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal, and pending an investigation by the Syracuse City Police.
Fine, in his 35th season as an assistant on the Syracuse bench, asked for a quick review and expressed confidence he would be vindicated.
“Sadly, we live in an allegation-based society and an internet age where in a matter of minutes one’s lifelong reputation can be severely damaged,” Fine said in a statement released by one of his attorneys. “I am confident that, as in the past, a review of these allegations will be discredited and restore my reputation. I hope the latest review of these allegations will be conducted expeditiously.”
Fine thanked Chancellor Nancy Cantor for her statement that “I should be accorded a fair opportunity to defend myself” and added: “I fully intend to do so. There should never be a rush to judgment when someone’s personal integrity and career are on the line.”
Cantor vowed that the school will not turn a blind eye to the allegations made by two stepbrothers to ESPN.
“Let me be clear. We know that many question whether or not a university in today’s world can shine a harsh light on its athletics programs,” Cantor said in an email to students, faculty and staff. “We are aware that many wonder if university administrations are willing to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing that may disrupt a successful sports program. I can assure you I am not, and my fellow administrators are not. We hold everyone in our community to high standards and we don’t tolerate illegal, abusive or unethical behavior — no matter who you are.”
She concluded: “At this time, all we really know is that a terrible tragedy is unfolding for both the accuser and the accused. I want you to know that we will do everything in our power to find the truth, and — if and when we do find it — to let you know what we have found.”
Both of Fine’s accusers are now adults. Bobby Davis, now 39, told ESPN that Fine molested him beginning in 1984 and that the sexual contact continued until he was around 27. A ball boy for six years, Davis told ESPN that the abuse occurred at Fine’s home, at Syracuse basketball facilities and on team road trips, including the 1987 Final Four, when the Orange lost to Indiana in the national championship game.
Davis’ stepbrother, Mike Lang, 45, who also was a ball boy, told ESPN that Fine molested him starting while he was in fifth or sixth grade.
“The dilemma in any situation like this, of course, is that — without corroborating facts, witnesses or confessions — one must avoid an unfair rush to judgment,” Cantor said. “We have all seen terrible injustices done to the innocent accused of heinous crimes. And we’ve all seen situations where the guilty avoid justice.”
The chancellor said a man contacted the school in 2005 about allegations he had previously reported to police of abuse in the 1980s and 1990s, but that police had declined to pursue it because the statute of limitations had expired.
She said the school conducted its own four-month investigation at that time, including interviews with people the accuser said would support his allegations, but all of them “denied any knowledge of wrongful conduct” by Fine.
Syracuse police spokesman Tom Connellan says the university did not contact police in 2005.
In an email to The Associated Press, Kevin Quinn, the school’s senior vice president for public affairs, said that when the school learned of the allegations in 2005, “it had already been reported to the Syracuse City Police and was already addressed within the criminal justice process.”
“Therefore, the police would have notified the District Attorney’s Office if appropriate under the circumstances. Nevertheless, we immediately launched our own investigation of our employee to determine the facts. If that investigation had revealed any evidence or corroboration of the allegations or any criminal conduct, we would have reported it to the authorities immediately.”
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick has vowed to conduct a complete investigation. He was out of town, and the AP was unable to reach him for comment.
Fitzpatrick told The Post-Standard of Syracuse that prosecutors were never notified when Syracuse police were told of the complaints in 2002 or 2003 and when the university conducted its own investigation in 2005.
Prior to Aug. 5, 2008, when New York’s law changed and the statute of limitations was eliminated, prosecutions for felony sex abuse of a child had to begin within five years after authorities learned about it or within five years after the child turned 18.
Paul DerOhannesian, defense attorney and former Albany County prosecutor, said the five-year statute of limitations has clearly passed for any crimes in this case if they took place in New York. But any out-of-state incidents during basketball road trips would be subject to the laws of those states, which might not have the same limits, he said.
DerOhannesian said the prosecutor also can bring information and witnesses before a grand jury to do a fact-finding report and recommend changes in the law. “In the course of that investigation, if people lie you then have criminal offenses which are timely,” he said.
Both ESPN and The Post-Standard said they first investigated Davis’ accusations in 2003 but decided not to do a story because there was no independent evidence to corroborate the allegations.
Davis told ESPN that coach Jim Boeheim knew he was traveling on the road and sleeping in Fine’s room.
“Boeheim saw me with Bernie all the time in the hotel rooms, on road trips,” Davis said. “He’d come in, and see me laying in the bed, kind of glance at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’ But he wouldn’t say that. He’d just scowl. And I would look at him like, I’d be nervous. I felt embarrassed ’cause I felt stupid that I’m there. I’m not supposed to be here. I know it, and Boeheim’s not stupid.”
In a telephone interview Thursday night with the AP, Boeheim defended Fine and denied ever going to the assistant’s room, much less seeing Davis there.
“This kid came forward and there was no one to corroborate his story. Not one. Not one,” Boeheim said. “… They said I walked into Bernie’s room on the road and saw this. I have never walked into Bernie’s room on the road. This isn’t true. This just isn’t true.”
In an on-camera interview with ESPN, Davis said he was sexually abused “hundreds of times.” Asked why he didn’t come forward during the 16 years he accuses Fine of molesting him, Davis said: “I honestly didn’t think anybody would believe me.”
Robert Edelman, a mental health counselor who is CEO of the Village Counseling Center in Gainesville, Fla., says it’s rare that abuse or a sexual relationship extends past childhood.
When it does, he said, “these victims are even more confused, blame themselves more intensely and feel even more helpless, especially when they came forward as children and the abuse did not stop.”