Penn State University trustees accepted responsibility Thursday for the child sex-abuse scandal that stained the reputation of the school and its storied football program, admitting that a lack of oversight and a failure to ask the right questions contributed to keeping the scandal in the dark.
“The Penn State board of trustees failed in our obligation to provide proper oversight,” board member Kenneth Frazier said in a televised news conference. “Our hearts remain heavy and we are deeply ashamed.”
The comments came on the heels of a searing 267-page report on the scandal, which concluded that top Penn State officials did not take steps against former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky for almost 14 years because they worried about bad publicity.
The report said the board of trustees did not exercise proper oversight over top leadership and were instead “rubber stamping” decisions already made by longtime head coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier.
Sandusky, 68, was convicted of 45 counts related to sexual abuse of 10 boys over 15 years, including some incidents that took place in the football team’s locker rooms. The children were participants in a charity Sandusky founded to assist disadvantaged boys.
The eight-month investigation was conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh and sanctioned by the board. The report said Sandusky could have been stopped in 1998, when allegations were first made, if proper action had been taken by university officials, including Paterno.
“His 61 years of excellent service to the university is now marred,” Board of Trustee Chairwoman Karen Peetz said Wednesday.
Frazier, who called the report “sad and sobering,” said trustees were “completely unaware” of the scandal from 1998 to March 2011, he said. Even when they learned of the attorney general’s investigation, he said, trustees “did not force the issue.”
The board began taking decisive action in November, including firing Paterno and then-university president Graham Spanier.
Paterno died of cancer in January. Other officials, including former Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Vice President Gary Schultz, are awaiting trial on a variety of charges, including perjury and allegations that they did not inform authorities of the sex abuse.
Penn State president Rodney Erickson called the Sandusky scandal “the most painful chapter in the university’s history.” He said he was “horrified” to learn of the allegations, and said it was immediately clear the trustees need to change their leadership culture.
The Freeh report includes 119 recommendations about how to do that, including better procedures for reporting misconduct and compliance and integration guidelines for the athletic department. Peetz said the trustees consider the report their “North Star” and will implement many of the suggestions.
Penn State has also developed several advisory committees to improve communication and oversight and will work to raise awareness about childhood sexual abuse.
“Above all, we must restore trust in our community,” Peetz said. “We don’t expect it to happen overnight. We will earn it back as we move forward.”