PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A new legal document that claims a boy told Joe Paterno in 1976 that Jerry Sandusky had molested him has dropped like a bombshell and reignited debate about what the Penn State coach knew about his longtime assistant decades before his arrest.
Details of the testimony remain hidden inside a sealed deposition in Penn State's court fight with the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association Insurance Company.
Paterno family members immediately dismissed the accusation, and even an attorney for victims of Sandusky cautioned that he did not know of irrefutable evidence supporting the claim.
Paterno, who died in 2012, had said that an assistant's report in 2001 of Sandusky attacking a boy in the shower was the first he knew of such allegations against Sandusky.
Details of the 1976 claim were not included in the court document — a judge's ruling in Penn State's dispute with its insurer — and a lawyer for the company declined to comment.
Sandusky is serving a lengthy prison sentence for his conviction in the sexual abuse of 10 children. The university has also paid out more than $90 million to settle 32 civil claims involving Sandusky. How far back in time all the acts occurred has not been made public.
Penn State's insurer claims there is evidence of several early acts of molestation by Sandusky, and not just the one by a boy who allegedly went to Paterno with his report in the 1970s, according to the ruling by Philadelphia Judge Gary Glazer. He said the events are described "in a number of the victims' depositions."
The insurer's evidence includes an allegation that one assistant coach saw "inappropriate contact" between Sandusky and a child at the university in 1987 and a second assistant "reportedly witnessed sexual contact" between Sandusky and a child a year later, the judge said. Also in 1988, the insurer claims, a child's report of his molestation by Sandusky was referred to Penn State's athletic director.
The judge wrote there was no evidence that reports of the incidents went "further up the chain of command at PSU."
In his ruling, the judge found that Penn State had to assume the costs of settlements stemming from claims over most of the 1990s because its insurance policies did not cover abuse or molestation.
When Sandusky abused children at his home or at events held by the children's charity he started, "he was still a PSU assistant coach and professor, and clothed in the glory associated with those titles, particularly in the eyes of impressionable children," Glazer wrote.
"By cloaking him with a title that enabled him to perpetuate his crimes, PSU must assume some responsibility for what he did both on and off campus," he said.
Penn State issued a statement late Friday saying it has "no records from the time to help evaluate the claims," noting Paterno could not defend himself.
Tom Kline, a lawyer who settled an abuse allegation with Penn State, said he and other lawyers were aware of claims dating back to the '70s.
Kline said the new disclosure "provides one more link in the chain which has been repeatedly denied by those who refuse to come to terms with the tragic reality here."
But another plaintiff's lawyer in Sandusky scandal, Michael Boni, urged caution in weighing the new Paterno allegation.
"The headlines of these stories is Paterno knew of Sandusky's molestation in the '70s, '76 or '77. I'm unaware of direct, irrefutable evidence that that's the case," Boni said. "Believe me, I'm the last person to defend the guy, but I am the first person to believe in our justice system. And I think you need more than anecdotal evidence or speculative evidence."
The coach's son Scott Paterno called the new claim "bunk," tweeting Friday that "it would be great if everyone waited to see the substance of the allegation before they assume it's true. Because it's not." Sue Paterno, the coach's widow, said in a letter to the Penn State board that the family had no knowledge of the new claims.
Defense attorney Al Lindsay said after speaking with Sandusky that his client denied that any of the incidents described in the court ruling occurred. Sandusky also maintained his innocence throughout the trial.
The school fired Paterno and removed his statue from the front of its football stadium — a decision that still rankles many fans and alumni — but his name adorns a university library, and the NCAA last year restored 111 of his wins vacated after Sandusky's 2012 conviction.
Paterno was not charged with any crime, and his family is pursuing a lawsuit against the NCAA for commercial disparagement, arguing the association's since-abolished consent decree with Penn State over the Sandusky scandal damaged their commercial interests and value.
In addition, three university officials await trial on criminal charges for their handling of the Sandusky scandal.
Scolforo reported from Harrisburg.