Penn State alums push to 'find the truth'

Franco Harris leads group of 140 in lambasting grand jury, trustees

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Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers legend and one of the most impassioned defenders of late Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno, took the microphone inside a Downtown theater Saturday and began his remarks with a question:

"So, why are we here?"

It was clear his audience of nearly 140 people, many clad in Penn State's blue and white colors, already had the answer. Mr. Harris recalled how the late coach, for whom Mr. Harris once played, was abruptly fired by the university a year ago, his name kept off of football programs and his statue removed from Beaver Stadium.

It's all because Penn State trustees and some others, in a rush to find scapegoats so they could extricate the school from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, "wanted us to move on. Forget about it. It's done," Mr. Harris asserted.

"Well, we did move on," he said. "But not in the direction they wanted us to go."

Twelve months after bursting into the headlines, the scandal and resulting investigation that yielded a seemingly endless stream of revelations also remains dogged by skepticism and unanswered questions. That was evident from the turnout for a three-hour town hall meeting inside the Harris Theater that supporters of the late coach -- including the session's host, Mr. Harris -- hope will evolve into a national push-back against perceptions that have tarred the university and its storied football program.

Those efforts, including ongoing analysis of the school's own investigation, will continue "until we find the truth," Mr. Harris said.

Saturday's meeting, dubbed "Upon Further Review: Penn State One Year Later," included the first public showing of a 32-minute mini-movie by Los Angeles filmmaker John Ziegler, "The Framing of Joe Paterno,'' which may be developed into a documentary. There were speakers who rebutted key findings against Paterno and other university leaders as well as a panel discussion.

The event was held a year and a day after Penn State announced it had fired Paterno and accepted the resignation of Penn State President Graham Spanier, who last month became the third campus administrator to be criminally charged in an alleged coverup.

Singled out for criticism Saturday were a state grand jury presentment that speakers said contained serious errors and exaggerations; school trustees whom Mr. Ziegler said "wet their pants" as lurid allegations broke in the media, and a school-commissioned investigation the speakers said was flawed yet formed the basis for landmark NCAA sanctions that Penn State leaders accepted without challenge.

The speakers said that journalists were eager to topple a vaunted football program and its coach, while overlooking the failure of others.

They asked why -- if state and local law enforcement and child welfare officials took no action for years after learning of suspicions about Mr. Sandusky -- it was assumed Penn State had enough evidence to do more than it did.

"If there was a cover-up in 1998, it was by the local authorities and not Penn State," said Eileen Morgan, a 1990 Penn State graduate who has analyzed the investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh.

Ray Blehar, another Penn State alumnus who conducted his own analysis of the Freeh report, said the root problem was failure by the Department of Welfare and by Children and Youth Services to stop Mr. Sandusky back in 1998.

Therefore, he said, Pennsylvania's children are no safer today.

"The same people who let him roam for 14 years are still in their jobs," Mr. Blehar, who works as a U.S. government analyst, said after Saturday's meeting.

Mr. Sandusky, 68, a retired assistant Penn State football coach, has begun serving a 30- to 60-year prison term for sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years, some on campus.

In addition to Mr. Ziegler, the panel discussion included Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State trustee; Rob Tribeck, a lawyer and legal counsel to the alumni group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship; Post-Gazette sports columnist Gene Collier; and journalist Robert Dvorchak, who along with Bill Moushey co-wrote the book "Game Over: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State and the Culture of Silence."

Mr. Ziegler's tone turned angry at times as he addressed journalists on the panel. He called the media morons and lemmings, prompting Mr. Dvorchak, a former Post-Gazette reporter, to break the tension by asking tongue-in-cheek, "Should I turn myself in?"

Mr. Collier stood by his opinion that the football program was secretive and that a suspension would have been reasonable, but he said the central administration in Old Main rather than the football program gave Mr. Sandusky unfettered access to campus, thus making it a Penn State scandal.

When Mr. Ziegler, his voice at times approaching a shout, asked how it could be asserted as Sports Illustrated did that the Sandusky case was the worst scandal in college sports history, Mr. Collier told him to take that question to Sports Illustrated because he never said it.

"I'm not going to be lumped in with everything you think is unfavorable about this," Mr. Collier said. "I'm sure that disappoints you, but I'm sorry."

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Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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