In a scandal reminiscent of Penn State, two men have come forward to accuse Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine of molesting them when they were children. The university has responded swiftly, putting Fine on leave and sending an email to all students. But head coach Jim Boeheim says the accusers are lying.
ESPN reports that Bobby Davis and his stepbrother Mike Lang both accuse Fine of molesting them in the eighties and nineties. Davis says Fine made him the ball boy for the basketball team, and took him on team trips, where he began sexually abusing the boy. He says Fine continued to have sex with him until he was 27. In 2003, he reported the abuse to the police, but they the Clinton investigator at the statute of limitations had run out and Davis could not name any current victims. He also reported to the University in 2005, but they declined to act since they couldn't find any witnesses to corroborate his allegations. In the wake of the Penn State scandal, though, Lang says he was inspired to tell his story — he says Fine began molesting him when he was in 5th or 6th grade. Now that he's come forward, the police have reopened the case and the university has placed Fine on leave.
However, Jim Boeheim defends his assistant coach. Of Davis's allegations, he tells ESPN, "It is a bunch of a thousand lies that he has told. You don't think it is a little funny that his [stepbrother] is coming forward?" He added,
I believe they are looking for money. I believe they saw what happened at Penn State and they are using ESPN to get money. That is what I believe. You want to put that on the air? Put that on the air.
No matter what Boeheim personally believes, his response is pretty much a textbook example of how not to respond to child abuse allegations. His blanket assertions that Davis is lying could discourage other abuse victims from coming forward — they also make him look cold and unfeeling. The university administration is taking a different tack. They released a statement reading, in part,
Syracuse University takes any allegation of this sort extremely seriously and has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind. If any evidence or corroboration of the allegations had surfaced [in 2005], we would have terminated the associated coach and reported it to the police immediately. We understand that the Syracuse City Police has now reopened the case, and Syracuse University will cooperate fully. We are steadfastly committed ensuring that SU remains a safe place for every member of our campus community.
Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor also sent the internal email below to university students, staff, and faculty early this morning. Here it is in full:
Dear Students, Faculty & Staff,
Last night, we were contacted by an ESPN television reporter regarding allegations dating back to the 1980's and 1990's that Associate Head Men's Basketball Coach Bernie Fine had engaged in inappropriate behavior with a minor, now 39. Following the terrible news that came out of Penn State in the last several weeks, this is clearly distressing to all of us in the Syracuse University community. The news is already being covered widely by the media.
I want to tell you what we know and what we are doing about it.
First, as has been announced, Bernie Fine has been placed on administrative leave pending a new investigation by the Syracuse Police Department. He has vehemently denied the allegations and should be accorded a fair opportunity to defend himself against these accusations.
As we have communicated publicly in response to media inquiries, in 2005, Syracuse University was contacted by an adult male who asserted that he had reported allegations in 2005 of abuse in the 1980's and 1990's to the police. That same individual told us that the Syracuse City Police had declined to pursue the matter because the statute of limitations had expired.
On hearing of the allegations, the University immediately launched its own comprehensive investigation through its legal counsel. The nearly four-month-long investigation included a number of interviews with people the individual said would support his claims. All of those identified by him denied any knowledge of wrongful conduct by the associate coach. At the end of the investigation, as we were unable to find any corroboration of the allegations, the case was closed. Had any evidence or corroboration of earlier allegations surfaced — even if the Police had declined to pursue the matter — we would have acted.
As of last night, we became aware that the Syracuse Police have determined to open an investigation, and we will cooperate to the fullest extent with their review of the matter.
Let me be clear. We know that many question whether or not a university in today's world can shine a harsh light on its athletics programs. We are aware that many wonder if university administrations are willing to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing that may disrupt a successful sports program. I can assure you I am not, and my fellow administrators are not. We hold everyone in our community to high standards and we don't tolerate illegal, abusive or unethical behavior — no matter who you are.
As you know, this week, I affirmed Syracuse University's steadfast belief that all of us have the responsibility, individually and collectively, to ensure that Syracuse University remains a safe place for every campus community member and everyone with whom we interact on a daily basis on campus or in the community as part of our learning, scholarship, or work. We do not tolerate abuse.
The dilemma in any situation like this, of course, is that — without corroborating facts, witnesses or confessions — one must avoid an unfair rush to judgment. We have all seen terrible injustices done to the innocent accused of heinous crimes. And we've all seen situations where the guilty avoid justice.
At this time, all we really know is that a terrible tragedy is unfolding for both the accuser and the accused. I want you to know that we will do everything in our power to find the truth, and — if and when we do find it — to let you know what we have found.
Given that Fine has denied the allegations and hasn't been convicted of a crime, Cantor's response is pretty much as strong as it can be at this point. But if the allegations turn out to be true, the university is going to face some criticism about its investigation in 2005 — and the sources who failed to corroborate Davis's story will be under scrutiny as well. Cantor's quite right that the events at Penn State have raised questions about whether universities protect their athletic staff at the expense of others' safety — let's hope Syracuse has the right answers.