What Do the Penn State and Syracuse Sex Abuse Cases Have In Common? Not Much.

The child molestation case against longtime Syracuse University assistant coach Bernie Fine recently took a shocking turn.

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Kevin Rivoli / AP

The child molestation case against longtime Syracuse University assistant coach Bernie Fine took a shocking turn on Sunday, when ESPN released a tape in which Fine’s wife seems to corroborate the claims of former Syracuse ball boy Bobby Davis, who has accused Fine of abusing him “hundreds” of times, starting the summer before seventh grade (Laurie Fine’s nephew told CNN that his aunt will argue that these tapes were tampered with). Davis’ stepbrother, Mike Lang, has also come forward and accused Fine of abuse (According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, Lang had previously denied that Fine molested him). Last weekend, a third accuser made claims against Fine; Zach Tomaselli, who lives in Maine, said Fine fondled him multiple times in a Pittsburgh hotel room in 2002. Tomaselli himself is awaiting trial on charges of sex abuse against a 14-year-old boy; Tomaselli says his father sexually abused him, while Tomaselli’s father says that his son is fabricating the story about Fine. The two are estranged.

Syracuse fired Fine on Sunday night. The team’s head coach Jim Boeheim, who has won 861 games at the school over the past 34 years and built the Orangemen into a national hoops power, backtracked on his initial support for Fine. He called the latest accusations against Fine “disturbing” and “deeply troubling.” When ESPN first reported the allegations against Fine on Nov. 17, Boeheim mounted an emotional defense of his long-time friend. “It is a bunch of a thousand lies that he has told,” Boeheim told ESPN, referring to Davis. Boeheim expressed his regret over that reaction. In a statement, Boeheim said “I deeply regret any statements I made that might have . . . been insensitive to victims of abuse.”

Since the Syracuse scandal unfolded in the wake of the Penn State abuse case —Tomaselli said the accusations against longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky compelled him to speak up about Fine—it’s natural to compare the cases. In both instances, two popular veteran assistant coaches have been accused of horrible crimes. It makes you wonder if neither man aggressively sought head coaching opportunities because they feared another institution would run a background check.

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Based on what’s known so far, however, the scale of the cases is quite different. At Penn State, a grand jury indictment identifies eight victims of Sandusky’s abuse; more accusers have come forward. The grand jury report has eyewitness testimony, from Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, that Sandusky raped a young boy in the Penn State showers in 2002. In the Syracuse case, an eyewitness has yet to emerge, though on the tape, Laurie Fine seems to acknowledge Fine’s abuses.  “I know everything that went on, you know,” she tells Davis, who also says he had a sexual relationship with Laurie Fine, in the taped phone call. “I know everything that went on with him … Bernie has issues, maybe that he’s not aware of, but he has issues … And you trusted somebody you shouldn’t have trusted …”

At Penn State, the grand jury indictment says McQueary reported the 2002 incident to Paterno, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, and school senior vice president Gary Schultz; yet none of these top Penn State officials went to the police (Curley and Schultz were charged with perjury and failure to report in the Penn State case; Paterno was not charged, as authorities said he met his legal obligation by reporting the incident to Curley, his superior). Syracuse says it investigated Fine in 2005, after the school became aware of Davis’ allegations: no one could corroborate them, the school said. Davis said he had already gone to the cops. Syracuse says it was not aware of the tape, which ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard obtained soon after Davis produced it in 2002. (Should ESPN and the newspaper have given the tape to the cops, especially since the accusation involves the abuse of children? ESPN has said it decided to air the tape now after more accusers came forward, and a voice recognition expert could verify Laurie Fine’s voice. The media piled on Paterno for failing to meet his moral responsibility in the Sandusky affair. But like Paterno, did the media outlets have a moral responsibility to prevent a potential abuser from striking again?)

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Then there’s Boeheim. It’s public record that Paterno was aware that McQueary had witnessed some sort of criminal act in the shower. (In an interview with NBC, Sandusky claimed he was just engaging in “horseplay” with the boy). There’s no proof that Boeheim knew of any eyewitness accounts of Fine’s abuse, or the existence of Davis’ tape. If he did, you’d think Boeheim would not have defended Fine so strongly when reports of Fine’s alleged abuse surfaced.

But should he immediately lose his job because of his emotional remarks about the accusers? Boeheim’s reaction was insensitive and very irresponsible, but it doesn’t seem like a fireable offense. Remember, Paterno’s failure to speak up in 2002 might have prevented Sandusky from abusing Victim 1 a few years later. That man could no longer lead a college football team. There’s no evidence, yet, that Boeheim failed to speak up. Some people are calling for Boeheim’s head. For now, we’ll put the pitchforks away.