Franco Harris stepped aside temporarily as chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise board Thursday while expressing sadness that defending his former coach and mentor at Penn State University, Joe Paterno, was seen by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl as disregard for child sex abuse victims.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Mr. Harris said, defending recent comments he made in the Penn State sex abuse scandal. "My heart aches for those young people and their families who were violated in the deplorable events at Penn State.
"Those who know me will be aware that during my many years of public service to the Pittsburgh regional community I have held steadfastly to the conviction that the protection and well-being of our children are paramount," he said.
Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, which provides college scholarships to graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools, said Mr. Harris will remain on the board as a full voting member. The Promise board, meeting for several hours Thursday night, will meet again in the next few days to further discuss the matter.
"However, we did affirm without hesitation Franco's integrity, Franco's character and his clear and evident lifetime of service to children," Mr. Ghubril said.
Mr. Harris, who played football under Mr. Paterno decades ago, said university trustees were wrong to fire the famed coach last week because Mr. Paterno did what he was legally required to do in 2002 by informing a superior about allegations that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy in a campus shower.
Mr. Ravenstahl apparently chafed at that opinion.
"I had to re-read it several times to fully comprehend the callous disregard and indifference for the victims of sexual abuse at Penn State," he stated in the email sent Wednesday evening to the Promise board.
"To so adamantly and vocally defend one man while maintaining silence for those powerless to defend themselves, shows me that you are the wrong man to represent the Pittsburgh Promise and the ideals it embodies.
"When I personally asked you to join the Board of the Pittsburgh Promise, I had every confidence that you would exercise sound judgment in your public life. Sadly, these statements show no regard whatsoever for the well-being of the young victims of sexual abuse and have led me to question your position of trust with the Pittsburgh Promise as Board Chairman.
"It is my ethical and moral responsibility to recognize that you are no longer a suitable representative for any organization, let alone ours."
Mr. Harris said neither the mayor nor his staff contacted him before sending the email.
Mr. Harris said he has attempted to "place the victims and their families at the forefront of my concerns while questioning the seeming rush to judgment in the treatment of Joe, who I know is deeply pained and distraught by events now under investigation at Penn State."
Earlier Thursday, Mr. Ghubril defended Mr. Harris, calling him a "dedicated and respected" leader of the scholarship program.
Mr. Ghubril said Mr. Harris has shown "compassionate and dedicated mentorship to our students, and [worked] as a tireless advocate of the program within our region and beyond.
"His integrity in all aspects of his service to The Promise is unquestionable," Mr. Ghubril said.
Penn State officials, including Mr. Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier, who stepped down by mutual agreement, faced growing criticism over the university's failure to alert law enforcement to allegations that Mr. Sandusky sexually assaulted a boy in a campus shower in 2002.
Staff writer Molly Born contributed. Bill Schackner: 412-263-1977. Eleanor Chute: 412-263-1955.