Penn St. working to settle lawsuits

Updated: September 20, 2012, 11:30 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State is developing a process for settling civil lawsuits filed against the university by people who claim they were sexually abused by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, university president Rodney Erickson said Wednesday.

Erickson said after a student forum the university wants to develop a process "fair to everyone and much so (that) the victims are dealt with in a just manner." He said the university hopes to release details soon.

Any settlements won't be paid with money coming from tuition, state appropriations or private donations but will come from other internal sources, including insurance funds, Penn State has said.

As part of its settlement process, Penn State plans to bring in the man who ran the Sept. 11 victim fund and other major compensation programs.

Plaintiff's attorney Jeff Anderson said Thursday that a lawyer for the university notified him in recent days that it will be aided by lawyer Ken Feinberg, who also ran victim compensation funds for victims of Agent Orange, the Virginia Tech massacre and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Philadelphia lawyer Joel Feller, part of a team that represents four of the 10 victims in Sandusky's criminal case, as well as Sandusky's adopted son Matt Sandusky and other claimants, confirmed he also was contacted by Penn State about Feinberg's participation.

Feller said he was waiting to learn more about how the school plans to proceed.

"Whether this is a positive or negative step will be determined solely by Penn State taking responsibility for the compensatory and punitive damages owed to these young men," Feller said.

Feinberg and university spokesman Dave La Torre are declining to comment.

Sandusky, an assistant under coach Joe Paterno, was convicted in June of sexually abusing 10 boys, some on campus. He's jailed awaiting sentencing and maintains his innocence, acknowledging he showered with boys but denying he molested them.

Erickson had said the night Sandusky was convicted that the university planned to contact the lawyers for the victims and invite them to participate in a program to "facilitate the resolution" of claims.

Lawyers for Sandusky's accusers and other potential claimants said last week they had very limited contact with the university and, if that continues, more lawsuits may follow the four now under way.

Penn State board of trustees chairwoman Karen Peetz said last week the trustees "don't want to put these victims, who have been through so much already, through anything more in terms of what we need to do to get it resolved."

Ten months after Sandusky's arrest, the massive scandal and its aftermath remain a sensitive topic.

About 60 students attended a forum Wednesday organized by student leaders, the third in a series of town hall-style events to interact with Erickson and other administrators. The forum was broadcast on a state public cable network, and questions were submitted by email from other Penn State campuses throughout the state.

Most of the roughly 20 questions asked, including those from the audience in a student union auditorium, were related to the scandal. Interactions were civil.

Senior RJ Fazio, an architectural engineering major, grilled Erickson about whether a university-sanctioned report by former FBI director Louis Freeh into the abuse scandal will be reviewed in response to NCAA sanctions against the university.

Freeh's report accused Paterno and three university officials of hiding abuse allegations to protect the university and its football program, claims denied by the family of Paterno, who died in January, and by the officials. The NCAA slammed the university with a four-year postseason ban, steep scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine.

Fazio said he doesn't believe all the findings in Freeh's report are true, and the sanctions hurt the school.

"(NCAA president) Mark Emmert has the audacity to blame our culture, which is a very scary statement," Fazio said. "Academics and athletics have been so evenly paired."

Erickson reiterated that agreeing to the NCAA sanctions was one of the hardest decisions he's ever had to make.

"When you belong to a membership organization, you play by the rules established," he said. "I would say the NCAA would say, 'If you don't want to play by house rules, you're free to drop out at any time.' "

Senior Kevin Berkon, a criminal justice major, said university leadership has tarnished Paterno's reputation by removing a bronze statue of him from outside Beaver Stadium.

"All I can say is you guys have pretty much torn this university apart," he said. "I cannot be more disappointed in the leadership here."

Trustee Marianne Alexander responded by saying trustees have to take into account decisions that will benefit the university and can't make decisions based on what would be popular.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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