STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Following eight years of rocky relations in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, Pennsylvania State University has made peace with the family of Joe Paterno.
The head of Penn State’s board of trustees announced Friday that the school had resolved all outstanding issues with the legendary football coach’s family, including a lawsuit that Paterno’s son Jay, now a member of the board, filed against the university in 2014.
“As part of the resolution, the Paternos have dropped all outstanding claims and the university has agreed to cover certain of the Paterno family’s expenses,” trustee Mark Dambly said at the start of the board’s monthly meeting.
University officials declined to disclose how much money Penn State paid to litigate or settle the claims in Jay Paterno’s suit. Jay Paterno, who had a been an assistant football coach, claimed his reputation was damaged after the university fired him following the scandal.
The deal seeks to end the bitter divide between the university and the Paternos that started when Penn State fired its longtime coach in 2011 after his former assistant, Sandusky, was charged with sexually assaulting boys. Joe Paterno died just months later, in early 2012.
Even after Sandusky’s conviction — and the prosecution of university administrators for endangering children by concealing his misconduct — the family for years argued that Joe Paterno had been scapegoated. Legions of Penn State fans and supporters, connecting through social media and alumni networks, mounted campaigns to restore his reputation.
In 2015, the NCAA restored 111 wins it had removed from Paterno’s record, returning him to record books as the college football coach with the most wins, 409. Alumni supporters won seats on the board of trustees, and continually challenged the university’s handling of the case.
In his statement, Dambly sought to put to rest the years of discord. With Jay Paterno sitting at the trustee table, Dambly praised both Joe Paterno and his wife, Sue, whom Dambly said continued to act “with grace and dignity,” despite the division.
“The university recognizes and takes great pride in the many contributions made by Joe Paterno, not just to the football program, but to the academic advancement of this institution and to countless charitable causes in the community as well,” he said. “We also wish to recognize the extraordinary contributions of Sue Paterno. Her unwavering devotion to Joe, her family and Penn State remains an inspiration to all of us.”
The Paternos, for their part, promised to stop efforts to further discredit the university and its handling of the Sandusky scandal.
“With this resolution, my family and I want to move forward with the university community and university leadership," Sue Paterno said in a statement.
The Paternos were among those who were sharply critical of the report by Louis Freeh — the former FBI director hired to investigate the university’s handling of Sandusky — that accused Penn State’s top administrators of conspiring to cover up Sandusky’s crimes. It also blamed the university’s football culture.
Criticism of the Freeh report also deeply divided the board of trustees, with alumni members suing to gain access to Freeh’s investigative materials and then issuing a critical report of the analysis. Sue Paterno said her family would no longer take part in those efforts.
“We will not support any public or private advocacy efforts to revisit the past, through further review or release of the discredited Freeh report, Freeh’s materials, or otherwise,” she said. “It is time to come together and devote our energies solely to education, research, and the advancement of one of America’s great institutions of higher learning.”
Dambly acknowledged that the Freeh report included “opinions about individuals and matters that are not shared by the university," but said the board’s efforts had a singular aim: to improve policies and procedures to protect children and improve compliance and safety.
“The victims of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse suffered extraordinary harm that cannot be undone,” Dambly said. “But as an institution, and as individuals, we can ensure that we never forget the victims of abusive behavior. Our commitment to these reforms will never waver.”
It’s unclear if the statue of Joe Paterno, removed after the scandal, will be returned. “There are no plans by the university to reinstall the statue,” said Penn State spokesperson Lawrence Lokman. “Any changes in the future would require the mutual approval of the Paterno family.”
Shortly after the meeting ended, Jay Paterno said he was pleased with the agreement, and so was his mother. He thinks his dad would have been, too.
“My dad, some of his last words … he said he wanted to spend the rest of his life making Penn State a better place, helping Penn State," the son said, "and I think this is reflective of that.”