Pennsylvania State University announced on Monday that they will pay an aggregate of $59.7 million to settle claims from 26 victims of sexual abuse. The university’s former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was unanimously found guilty of 45 criminal counts relating to the sexual abuse he inflicted upon eight young boys he met at The Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded for at-risk youth. The abuse lasted from 1995 to 2008 but dozens of victims have stepped forward since the scandal broke out in 2011, indicating that the abuse dates back to the 1970s and continued during Sandusky’s coaching tenure at Penn State. In October 2012, 68 year-old Sandusky was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years and a maximum of 60 years in prison.
Some victims of Sandusky’s sexual abuse have filed a civil suit against the university based on claims that the University knew of the abuse. “Victim 1” alleged that Penn State deliberately and shamefully chose to not act on complaints of Sandusky’s inappropriate behavior with young boys. Yet, the university clearly wants to avoid the embarrassment and scandal of a public trial investigating the events following graduate assistant Mike McQueary notifying former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno and other high-ranking school officials in 2001 about an inappropriate shower incident involving Sandusky and a young boy.
If Penn State had decided to go to trial instead of settling claims brought by these 26 victims, the university would have had to contend with expert witnesses testifying about sexual abuse. During the Sandusky trial, a Pennsylvania law prohibited expert witnesses from testifying (the judge, however, did allow an expert witness to testify about histrionic personality disorder to shed light on the defense’s claim that Sandusky is developmentally different). This law, based on the idea that expert witness testimony encroaches upon the role of the jury, has since been overruled; Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed a law in 2012 allowing expert witnesses to testify in sexual-assault cases. Pennsylvania is the last state in the U.S. to pass a law allowing expert witnesses to testify in sexual abuse cases.
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Expert witnesses testifying in sexual abuse cases, usually health professionals such as psychologists and social workers, clarify and explain victim behavior. Victims fear that they will be called liars and mistreated for coming forward but expert witnesses can help derail defense attorney’s attacking the credibility of sexual abuse victims (Sandusky’s lawyer accused victims of being money-hungry fame-seekers). For example, expert witnesses can explain why victims may have trouble remembering details surrounding a traumatic event. Studies show that “a lack of clarity around specific details of assault is common among survivors of trauma, including cases of sexual violence and child sexual abuse. Gaps in memory can be attributed to the way the brain processes a traumatic event.” Expert witnesses can also discuss why victims of sexual abuse tend to delay reporting the crime and why victims continue to communicate with their abuser.
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In addition to preventing personal biases and preconceived notions from entering a juror’s assessment of the seemingly confusing or contradictory actions by victims, expert witnesses also analyze the policies and procedures aimed at dealing with sexual abuse. Litigating the case would mean revisiting the shocking details described in Louis Freeh’s independent investigation of Penn State. The report criticizes the university for failing “to exercise its oversight functions.” The report found that Penn State lacked “regular reporting procedures or committee structures in place to ensure disclosure to the Board of major risks to the University… [and also lacked] awareness of child abuse issues, the Clery Act, and whistleblower policies and protections.” Additionally, the report expresses disgust with how the most senior leaders of the University “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse,” revealing “a striking lack of empathy for child abuse.”
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Since news of the Sandusky-scandal broke, Penn State has spent more than $50 million in legal and consulting fees alone. The NCAA imposed harsh “corrective and punitive measures” including a $60 million fine and a four-year ban on post-season football. Additionally, former Penn State University President Graham Spanier, former Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, and former athletic director Tim Curley will stand trial on criminal charges for “perjury, endangering the welfare of children, obstructing justice, conspiracy and failure to report suspected child abuse.” Expert witnesses will likely testify at trial under Pennsylvania’s new law regarding the “conspiracy of silence” that Attorney General Linda Kelly alleges these three men participated in.