STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — With Penn State’s storied football team poised Saturday to play its first game without coach Joe Paterno since Lyndon B. Johnson was president, the school’s trustees pledged to find the truth behind a child sex abuse scandal that claimed the coach’s job and has rattled one of the nation’s largest universities.
Thousands of students gathered peacefully on campus Friday night for a candlelight vigil for the boys whom former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is accused of molesting. Two nights earlier, a violent student demonstration broke out after Paterno’s firing, and emotions remain raw — a window at Sandusky’s home was smashed and Paterno has retained a lawyer.
On Friday, the trustees met for the first time in public since the scandal broke in a state grand jury report released last week. They opened with a show of support for new university President Rodney Erickson by removing the “interim” tag on his new title. The school will keep searching for a permanent successor to longtime university President Graham Spanier, who was forced out along with Paterno, the coach with the most wins in Division I football.
Without mentioning Spanier or Paterno, Erickson said the trustees’ deliberate and decisive action had set a course for the university’s future. Now more than ever, he said, Penn State must devote itself to its core values: honesty, integrity, excellence and community.
“I know we can do this. We are resilient. We are a university that will rebuild the trust and confidence that so many people have had in us for so many years,” Erickson told the trustees.
He pledged to appoint an ethics officer and said his heart aches for the victims and their families — a message that trustees, university student leaders and the state’s politicians are increasingly trying to stress in the wake of the firings that absorbed much of the focus.
President Barack Obama on Friday night called the assault allegations “heartbreaking” in his first public comments on the scandal.
“I think it’s a good time for the entire country to do some soul-searching — not just Penn State,” Obama said at halftime of the North Carolina-Michigan State basketball game. “People care about sports, it’s important to us, but our No. 1 priority has to be protecting our kids. And every institution has to examine how they operate, and every individual has to take responsibility for making sure that our kids are protected.”
Erickson, when asked later whether Paterno would be welcome at the game, was curt.
“Clearly, he’s welcome to come as any other member of the public would be,” he said.
The home game Saturday against Nebraska will be played amid heightened security, with the university warning of long lines to get into the stadium.
“I can’t speak to any specific threats. But I can tell you that Penn State’s security (and police) … take everything seriously,” Erickson said.
Concern about the scandal was prevalent on the campus, including on its coffers.
Moody’s Investors Service Inc. said the school’s high Aa1 bond rating was placed under review for a possible downgrade and will be assessed over the next few months for a potential impact from the university on possible lawsuits, a decline in student applications, the loss of donations from philanthropies and changes in the school’s relationship with the state.
The strong current bond rating, like a credit rating for a person, reflects Penn State’s attractiveness to prospective students because of its respected academic program and status as Pennsylvania’s flagship and land grant university, Moody’s said. That has drawn out-of-state students paying high tuition rates.
Paterno and Spanier were forced out Wednesday, primarily amid questions about whether they did enough to stop, report or investigate what the grand jury report said was the molestation of boys as young as 10 by Sandusky, sometimes in Penn State’s facilities.
The grand jury report said that administrators didn’t contact law enforcement after a graduate assistant said he saw Sandusky sodomizing a boy of about 10 in the locker room showers at the team’s practice center in 2002. Top school officials, including Paterno and Spanier, said they weren’t told about the seriousness of the matter.
Sandusky has maintained his innocence, his lawyer has said.
The board also formed an investigative committee — headed by trustee Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. Inc. — to dig into the allegations of wrongdoing. It will have the power to hire independent lawyers, and it plans to publicly release the entirety of its findings, Frazier said.
“The purpose of this investigation is to ensure that the public understands everything that we learn in this investigation and a report will be made completely public as quickly as we possibly can,” Frazier said.
The university as a whole, however, has a long way to go before anything can be considered routine now that Paterno, whose 46 years leading the Nittany Lions turned him into an icon in the area known as Happy Valley and beyond, is gone. The school on Thursday named defensive coordinator Tom Bradley the interim coach.
Paterno’s son Scott, meanwhile, released a statement saying his father had hired Wick Sollers, a high-profile criminal attorney.
While not the subject of any criminal investigation, Joe Paterno wants “the truth to be uncovered, and he will work with his lawyers to that end,” Scott Paterno said.
Joe Paterno’s firing sparked a violent student rally Wednesday night, requiring police in riot gear, at times using pepper spray, to disperse about 2,000 who took to the streets and some who toppled a TV news van.
Sandusky served as Paterno’s top defensive assistant for more than two decades and at one time was considered his heir apparent. But he abruptly retired in 1999, about a year after university police investigated a complaint by a mother upset that Sandusky had showered with and bear-hugged her 11-year-old son, the grand jury report said. That investigation produced no charges.
Authorities said Sandusky met many of the boys through The Second Mile, a charity he founded in 1977 to help at-risk youth.
Former Athletic Director Tim Curley and former university Vice President Gary Schultz have been charged with perjury and failure to report the 2002 assault allegation, as required by state law. Lawyers for the men say that they are innocent, that they told the truth to the grand jury and that they told Spanier what they knew, fulfilling their legal obligation.
About a week and a half after the 2002 assault, the graduate assistant — identified by people familiar with the investigation as Mike McQueary, now the team’s wide receivers coach — met with Curley and Schultz and told them he had witnessed what he believed to be Sandusky raping a boy, the grand jury report said.
McQueary was placed on administrative leave Friday, Erickson said, and won’t be coaching at Saturday’s game against Nebraska because he has received threats.
AP National Writer Nancy Armour in State College, AP Business Writer Marcy Gordon in Washington and writers Patrick Walters and Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia contributed to this report.