STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State trustees on Friday promised to move forward with a detailed evaluation of changes recommended by former FBI director Louis Freeh in response to the child sex-abuse scandal that tarnished the university’s reputation.
At the same time, chairwoman Karen Peetz said the board wouldn’t do a detailed analysis of Freeh’s scathing report, which concluded that the late football coach Joe Paterno and three other school officials concealed child molestation allegations against retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Paterno’s family and the officials have firmly denied the findings, which also have been questioned by many alumni.
“The four people spoken about most in the report, we’re certainly not going to take a position on their guilt or innocence,” trustee Mark Dambly later told reporters. “They’ll go through their process … We’re going to allow that process to play out in the courts.”
Dambly said Freeh, also a former federal judge, was hired as an independent investigator with the goal of finding out “who knew what when,” as well as suggesting changes in governance and administration “so that nothing like this would happen again.”
Sandusky is awaiting sentencing in jail after being convicted of 45 criminal counts in June.
University leaders faced pointed questions from the public about their handling of Freeh’s report and the resulting NCAA sanctions that punished the school’s venerable football program. The trustees allotted time for public comment for the first time at one of their meetings, part of what trustees have said was a concerted effort to increase transparency.
“While we are moving forward on my many fronts,” Peetz said, “we accept the consequences of failure and we are remedying any wrongs.”
The roughly 30-minute question and answer period showed fault lines in a Penn State community still anguished by Freeh’s findings in July. The NCAA based its landmark sanctions on those findings, levying the school with a four-year bowl ban, significant scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine, among other penalties.
Each of the seven questions during the comment period related in some way to the scandal, and many dealt specifically with either the Freeh report or the sanctions. One of the commenters, Cecelia Masella, raised questions about President Rodney Erickson’s discussions with the NCAA before the sanctions were handed down.
“This board wants the general public to move forward, but I’m here to tell you that this is not going to happen because the stakes are too high,” Masella said. “There are many thousands of individuals who cannot heal until the truth triumphs … I can tell you with no uncertainty we are not going away.”
Masella’s remarks were met by applause by attendees in the gallery, though interactions were mainly respectable.
Erickson stood steadfastly behind the account he offered trustees in an Aug. 12 teleconference, in which he said he was told that an overwhelming majority of NCAA officials “wanted blood” and the consent decree was “a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.”
“Those are the facts … I still believe that was the best course of action given what we were faced with,” Erickson said. “It’s a decision that no university president should ever have to make.”
Responding to another question, Peetz said the board was focused on implementing the changes recommended by Freeh by the end of next year following a thorough evaluation, or to offer reasons why they would not implement changes.
The recommendations cover areas including strengthening safety and security policies; identifying and reporting misconduct; and governance. Some recommendations already have been implemented, including a new policy to limit access to athletic facilities and a restructuring of the board to strengthen governance.
But Peetz said the board did not plan a detailed review of the report itself. She said such a review would take its course in upcoming trials or other legal actions, a comment that drew a couple chuckles from the crowd.
Peetz said she understood the frustrations of the school’s passionate alumni over the Freeh report and sanctions.
“I think, unfortunately, there will always be people who are skeptical about what we say or how we say it,” Peetz told reporters later. “We’re just telling it like it is.”
Critics of the school’s handling of the Freeh report have said Penn State “accepted” the findings, but Dambly said that wasn’t the case.
The board said in a statement after findings were released July 12 that it “accepted full responsibility for the failures that occurred.”
“There have been lots of suggestions that we accepted all 267 pages (of the report). That’s not accurate at all,” Dambly said. “We did not take any action on the Freeh report. It’s open to anybody’s interpretation.”
Freeh challenged the trustees to look at the culture of the university. But, Dambly said, “we don’t suggest that the entire culture of the university is flawed. None of us have ever said that. Unfortunately, it’s been construed that way.”
The trustees also voted to table a proposal to re-name a child care center on campus that bears the name of former school administrator Gary Schultz, one of the school officials named in Freeh’s report. Schultz is awaiting trial on charges he lied to a grand jury about Sandusky and didn’t properly report suspected child abuse.
Trustee Anthony Lubrano read an email sent to trustees from Schultz’s lawyer asking the board to wait on taking action until after his January trial. Another trustee, Ira Lubert, said renaming the facility now could influence a trial.