Sandusky Conviction–Just The Beginning of Penn State’s Problems?

As we all know by now, 68 year old ex-Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted by a Centre County, PA jury on June 22, 2012 of 45 counts of sexual abuse of children. Sandusky was acquitted of only 3 of the total of 48 charges against him. The relatively brief trial included the testimony of eight victims, as well as that of former assistant coach Michael McQueary, who testified that he observed Sandusky engaging in sexual conduct with a ten year old boy in the university showers back in 2001 and reported this abuse to university officials.

In the wake of the long anticipated and emotional conviction of Mr. Sandusky, with a cheering crowd outside the Bellefonte, PA Courthouse when the verdict was announced late last Friday, Penn State is now facing significant issues that will have long-lasting repercussions for the reputation and finances of the institution. First, there is the ongoing perjury case against the two ex-officials that McQueary claimed he informed of the Sandusky sexual abuse, athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz. The charges are that Curley and Schultz lied to a grand jury investigating the abuse charges and testified that McQueary never informed them of his observations. Concurrently, former FBI director Louis Freeh, who was hired by the Penn State to do an investigation into whether the school responded properly to allegations against Sandusky in the late 1990’s, will be issuing his findings in the very near future.

Without question, if Schultz and Curley are convicted, this is strong evidence that the university allowed a sexual perpetrator to continue his conduct on school grounds for at least several additional years after they knew there was a problem and could have averted same by alerting authorities and not permitting Sandusky to have access to school facilities and an office on campus.

Another huge problem Penn State is facing are the inevitable civil lawsuits which will now be filed by at least some, if not all of Sandusky’s victims for monetary damages. From an evidentiary point of view, the burden of proof in a civil action, a “ preponderance of the evidence”, (which means that it is slightly greater than 50% that the plaintiff’s version of the events is accurate) is a much easier burden to prove than beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard of proof required to convict in a criminal case. We saw this 16 years ago when O.J. Simpson was acquitted by a criminal jury of the murder of his wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, yet found liable for the killings by a civil jury a year later.

There is no question that Penn State is plenty worried about the possibility of significant civil verdicts against the university, and in keeping with this fear has already begun attempting to begin negotiations to resolve potential civil cases. In a statement, Penn State indicated: “Now that the jury has spoken, the university wants to continue that dialogue and do its part to help victims continue their path forward…to that end, the university plans to invite victims of Mr. Sandusky’s abuse to…facilitate the resolution of claims against the university arising out of Mr. Sandusky’s conduct.”

Even if Penn State is able to resolve the potential civil claims from the victims that testified in the Sandusky trial, that will still not end its legal difficulties and financial concerns. Matt Sandusky, his adopted son, recently revealed that he was also a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his father. Matt was prepared to testify as a rebuttal witness at the recently concluded trial if Mr. Sandusky took the stand in his own defense, which he elected not to do, as is the case with the great majority of criminal defendants. Further, a state grand jury is still in place, and there is a strong likelihood that either additional victims, other defendants involved in the failure to stop Sandusky, or both, will be identified in the near future.

In sum, Penn State officials are probably being overly optimistic if they believe that they can end their legal problems with an overture to resolve civil claims with the presently known Sandusky sexual abuse victims. Their legal issues as a result of the Sandusky sexual abuse scandal may persist for years to come.

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