Penn State trustees accept blame for failure to respond to abuse reports
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SCRANTON, Pa. -- Calling the independent report they commissioned "both sad and sobering," Penn State University trustees accepted blame Thursday for the school's failure to respond to reports of sexual misconduct by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
"We are accountable for what's happened here," said Kenneth Frazier, who chaired the board of trustees' special investigation task force formed in November. "Our hearts remain heavy, and we are deeply ashamed."
Mr. Frazier, joined by university president Rodney Erickson and board chairwoman Karen Peetz, faced a barrage of questions from reporters Thursday afternoon, hours after the report from Louis Freeh and his team of investigators was released.
The document concluded that the trustees fell short in their oversight of top university administrators, saying they "failed to create an environment which held the university's most senior leaders accountable to it."
While it primarily laid blame with four individuals -- former university president Graham Spanier, longtime football coach Joe Paterno, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley -- the report also stated that board officials did not properly press Mr. Spanier and others for information following an initial news report in March 2011 that Mr. Sandusky was the subject of a criminal investigation.
Mr. Sandusky was charged in November with more than four dozen counts of sexually abusing 10 boys he met through his nonprofit, The Second Mile. Last month, he was convicted on 45 of those counts.
"We failed to ask the right questions, the tough questions, or to take definitive action," Mr. Frazier said. "Put simply, we did not force the issue."
The investigation also concluded that the board of trustees did not have adequate structures in place requiring regular reporting of risks, a failure that was exacerbated by administrators, who failed to disclose allegations against Mr. Sandusky beginning in 1998 and the eventual criminal probe.
Mr. Frazier attributed the board's lack of response in part to the "huge" degree of trust they had placed in Mr. Spanier and said they took his answers regarding the Sandusky matter at face value.
"In retrospect, we were, frankly, not appropriately pushing to get deeper answers," he said. "I don't know that there were different questions, so much as asking again and again, 'Is there nothing more that we haven't been told?' "
Ms. Peetz, who joined the board in 2010 and was elected chairwoman in January, said simply that the trustees "did not pay enough attention" to a Harrisburg Patriot-News article in March or to their May briefing.
"It wasn't detailed, the report in May 2011, but we should have had our antenna up and we should have been risk-managing in a much more active way," she said.
Board members did defend their actions in November once the grand jury report regarding Mr. Sandusky, Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz was released. Four days after the charges became public, the board fired Mr. Paterno and forced out Mr. Spanier -- actions that Mr. Frazier described Thursday as "decisive."
While other trustees generally declined to comment as they entered and exited Thursday's private board meeting at the Hilton hotel here, one newly elected member who had called for board resignations took a more measured tone in talking with reporters.
"I'm not going to speak to the actions of any prior board," said Anthony Lubrano, who was elected in May. "I'm going to do what I think is responsible, which is to spend time with the current board, talk to them about this report, what is suggested in this report, and I imagine one of those discussions will be about that very matter."
No current board members plan to resign in response to the report, Ms. Peetz said, pointing to the addition of newly elected members as "a natural evolution" of the oversight panel. She added that for the university's stability, the best step would be for board members to acknowledge their responsibility and begin to implement changes.
Officials said that no university personnel have been asked to step down in light of the new report. They did note that the contract of former assistant coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed one of sexual assaults at the Lasch Football Building and testified at Mr. Sandusky's trial, expired June 30.
Mr. Erickson said his administration already has begun to work more collaboratively with the board of trustees and that they are putting together an action plan in response to the report.
A series of operating changes have been implemented since the beginning of the year in regard to university policies governing minors on campus, the reporting of incidents of misconduct and certain security regulations.
The Freeh report recommended dozens of additional changes, including a set directed at the board of trustees in particular. Those focused on developing policies regarding ethics and conflicts of interest to boost transparency; enacting their proposed new committees on risk and compliance; rotating committee chairmanships every five years; improving communications between the board and administrators; and requiring timely briefings on potential problem areas.
At today's board meeting, trustees are scheduled to vote on proposals to shorten their 15-year term limits to 12 years and to allow for public comment during future meetings.
As for Mr. Paterno, board officials said his legacy is now "marred" with the details contained in the report indicating that the coach knew of a 1998 incident involving misconduct by Mr. Sandusky in addition to the locker room incident witnessed in 2001.
But the trustees who fired Mr. Paterno late on a November night quickly added that judgment of the legendary coach should not focus solely on his behavior in response to the abuse reports.
"There's no question that what the report finds is inexcusable are failures on the part of Joe Paterno and others to protect children, there's no equivocation about that," Mr. Frazier said. "But I also say that Joe Paterno did a lot of tremendous things in his life. ... You have to measure every human by the good they've done and the bad they've done."
First Published July 13, 2012 12:11 am