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Devastating sex abuse report may raise university liability

New York -- A devastating report blaming Penn State and its top officials for covering up the sexual abuse of children by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky could increase the university's exposure to potentially huge civil damages, legal experts say.

Penn State, which reported US$4.6 billion of revenue in its fiscal year ended in June 2011 and has an endowment topping US$1.8 billion, has already been sued by at least one of Sandusky's accusers an d others are expected to initiate litigation as well.

The 267-page report, overseen by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, will give them new ammunition to hold the university liable, said Andrew Stoltmann, a civil litigator based in Chicago. In other sex abuse scandals, notably the one that rocked the Catholic Church, such damning evidence of efforts to cover up wrongdoing has been hard to come by.

“You don't typically see a road map like this provided,” said Stoltmann, who is not involved in the case.

Sandusky, 68, was convicted last month of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years and faces up to 373 years in prison. He filed his intent to appeal the conviction on Thursday.

The Freeh report, commissioned by Penn State, concluded that the school's leaders, including former President Graham Spanier and the late famed football coach Joe Paterno covered up years of abuse by Sandusky in an effort to preserve the university's reputation.

In response to the Freeh report, Karen Peetz, chair of Penn State's board of trustees, said the board “accepts full responsibility for the failures that occurred.”

The report expanded on grand jury findings released in November that led to prosecutors filing sex abuse charges against Sandusky, as well as charges of perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse against former athletic director Tim Curley and finance official Gary Schultz.

One of Sandusky's accusers, Travis Weaver, used those grand jury findings as the basis for his November lawsuit against the university. Many of the claims were for negligence, which is a relatively easy claim to prove in court, and the Freeh report could help bolster stronger claims, said Marci Hamilton, a lawyer for Weaver.

“Intentional and reckless torts are harder to prove, but this report seems to indicate that the university engaged in both intentional and reckless disregard for the welfare of children,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton cautioned that the report was not the final chapter of Penn State's liability. She noted that the report did not address the years between 1977, when Sandusky established the Second Mile, a charity he allegedly used to find his victims, to 1998.

“Pedophiles don't start abusing midlife,” said Hamilton.

Nevertheless, she said the strong conclusions and evidence included in the Freeh report could open the university up to huge punitive damages, which juries can grant plaintiffs in an effort to deter others from similar conduct. Punitive damages can be multiples of compensatory damages that a jury awards.

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