The child sex-abuse scandal coming out of Pennsylvania State University has resulted in various criminal charges against the man who allegedly carried out the acts of pedophilia, and those who supposedly turned a blind eye to the years-long incidents of abuse.
But now it seems one question remains: what type of civil liability might the revered university be looking at facing once the criminal case wraps up?
The case bears striking resemblance to the child sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in that it involves institutional hierarchy that apparently sought fit to handle matters of pedophilia internally without brining in authorities.
At the heart of the latest case is former Penn State football defensive coordinator Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky, who was arrested and charged last weekend with 40 criminal counts stemming from his alleged abuse of eight young children during a years-long period that began in the late 1990s.
Sandusky was defensive football coordinator for more than 20-years, and a Penn State employee for three-plus decades.
The child sex abuse scandal was laid out in a scathing 23-page grand jury report recently made public by the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly. A ninth person has since come forward to say he, too, was abused by the former assistant football coach, according to local media reports.
The university’s athletics director, Timothy Curley, and its senior vice president for finance and business, Gary Schultz, are each charged with one count of perjury for allegedly lying to the grand jury about their level of knowledge of the alleged abuse, and one count each of failure to report, according to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. The perjury charges are felonies while the failure to report charge is a mere summary offense, similar to receiving a traffic ticket in Pennsylvania.
As the criminal case against the three move forward, it remains to be seen what, if any, civil litigation is initiated against the three criminal defendants, the university as a whole, or all of the above.
Those in the legal community who are following the news, but not directly connected to the case, are eagerly awaiting the case’s progression.
Bret R. Goldstein, an attorney who practices civil defense work with the Philadelphia firm of Reger, Rizzo & Darnall, and who is not involved in the Penn State case, said, speaking in general terms, it appears difficult for the university to defend its actions.
“Perhaps Penn State could argue that the program that allowed the coach access to the young boys was not under the auspices of Penn State and thus they cannot be held liable for the criminal actions of an employee?” Goldstein wrote in an emailed message. “But I don’t really know the facts well enough.”
While Sandusky, the former football defensive coordinator charged with molesting the young boys, worked for Penn State, his career in university athletics ended in 1999, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
Sandusky subsequently founded a charity for disadvantaged children called The Second Mile. The foundation served primarily as a group home for troubled boys. It was at the nonprofit, it is alleged, that Sandusky met the boys he would allegedly go on to victimize.
However, some of those alleged molestations occurred on Penn State’s campus, with one alleged incident taking place in the shower of the athletic facilities.
According to the grand jury presentment, a former graduate assistant who still works at the university supposedly walked in on Sandusky anally raping a boy who appeared to be about 10 years old in the showers of the Lasch Football Building on the University Park Campus. The alleged incident occurred in March 2002, well after Sandusky had left the school in his capacity as defensive coordinator for the football team.
Sandusky continued to have access to the campus and its buildings, however, because of his emeritus status with the school.
As for possible civil litigation, some lawyers are seeing the potential for a payday for the victims.
“I think they [Penn State officials] are liable,” Sol Weiss, a partner in the Center City, Philadelphia plaintiff’s firm Anapol Schwartz, told the Philadelphia Inquirer Thursday. “They may not be liable if this activity occurred outside the confines of the university premises, but from what I understand, he [Sandusky] was given wide access to a lot of the facilities.”
Similarly, attorney Matt Casey, of Philadelphia’s Ross Feller Casey L.L.P., told the newspaper that it may be easy to prove negligence on the part of the university.
“My goodness, they had notice of particularly dangerous conduct as it relates to defenseless 10-year-old children and not only do they not take steps to remedy the condition but they provided him with the means to perpetrate these acts,” Casey was quoted as saying in the Inquirer.
Casey was referencing the fact that Penn State officials had apparently been aware of reports that Sandusky had had sexual contact with young boys over the years, something that could help prove the university knew about a dangerous condition existing on its campus, but never took the active steps to fix it.