STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - The full story about what happened in the Penn State child-sex abuse scandal will only come out through the civil lawsuits that now appear inevitable, and the matter raises novel and challenging legal issues, according to lawyers with experience in similar litigation.
Lawyers for people who say former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky victimized them have been surfacing and speaking out in recent days, raising the likelihood the criminal charges currently pending against him will eventually be followed by civil lawsuits.
Sandusky is accused of abusing eight boys, some on campus, over 15 years, allegations that were not immediately brought to the attention of authorities even though high-level people at Penn State apparently knew about them.
The scandal resulted in the ousting of school President Graham Spanier and longtime coach Joe Paterno, and has brought shame to one of college football’s legendary programs.
Athletic Director Tim Curley was placed on administrative leave, and Vice President Gary Schultz, who was in charge of the university’s police department, stepped down.
Schultz and Curley are charged with lying to the grand jury and failure to report to police, and Sandusky is charged with child sex abuse. All maintain their innocence.
One of the first tasks will be to winnow out any claimants who may seize upon the scandal in hopes of financial gain.
“It does happen that people who come out of the woodwork do not have a real case,” said Gerald J. Williams, a Philadelphia lawyer who has handled civil rights cases involving child abuse. “But by the same token, in this kind of case, there are often a lot of people who have just been quiet about their encounters with the defendant.”
Reed Smith, a Pittsburgh-based law firm with more than 1,700 attorneys, said Thursday it had been retained by the board of trustees, although a Penn State spokesman downplayed the threat of civil exposure.
“Nobody here is spending any time thinking about that or talking about that,” said university relations vice president Bill Mahon.
Legal experts said Sandusky, the school and other likely defendants would all face different levels and types of possible legal problems in civil court. That would hinge on the evidence produced by the discovery process, which in civil litigation generates much more information than in a criminal trial, where defendants have a broader right against self-incrimination.
“You’re going to see everybody pointing at somebody else to try and get themselves out of it,” said Slade McLaughlin, a Philadelphia lawyer who has pursued claims in the Philadelphia Catholic priest abuse case. “When you’ve got 19, 20 kids coming out, saying `He did it, he did it,’ I don’t understand why anyone at Penn State in their right mind would say, `Let’s fight this.’”
McLaughlin said he based those numbers on direct conversations with lawyers who have already lined up clients, as well as with investigators for those lawyers who are currently combing for potential evidence to use when lawsuits are ready to be filed. He does not currently represent any accusers, but expects to become involved in the near future.
“I’ve heard there are people out there going to the rallies, scouting around, talking to people who went to The Second Mile gatherings,” McLaughlin said. The Second Mile is a charity Sandusky founded for at-risk children where, according the attorney general’s office, he met the eight boys he is accused of sexually abusing.
Lynne Abraham, the former Philadelphia district attorney who has been hired by The Second Mile, said the charity might be destroyed by the scandal.