Penn State scandal will prompt bills on reporting child sex abuse, lawmakers say

Posted: November 14, 2011

The Penn State scandal will likely impel the swift introduction - and passage - of legislation requiring any adult with knowledge of a sexual assault on a child to immediately report it to police, several state lawmakers predict.

Some also voice hope that their colleagues will take another look at proposals already on the table, including a right-to-sue bill for abuse victims that is stalled in committee.

Penn State's head football coach, Joe Paterno, and president, Graham B. Spanier, were fired last week for failing to notify law enforcement officials in 2002 that they had received a credible report that former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raped a young boy in the locker room showers.

"The sad thing is, Paterno didn't violate the law" by failing to notify authorities, said Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Phila).

"He just kicked it upstairs, which was legal," Boyle said. "I'm hopeful this situation will get the legislature to act on some bills we should have acted on a long time ago."

He is among several lawmakers, including Reps. Louise Bishop (D., Phila) and Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery), calling for legislation that would make it mandatory to promptly report suspected sex crimes against minors.

"Frankly, even as a sex-crimes prosecutor for 10 years, I wasn't aware how lenient the penalties were for failing to report these crimes, and how limited the reporting requirements are that we have in place," Stephens said.

Stephens, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, was previously an assistant district attorney in Montgomery County and captain of its sex-crimes unit. Like Boyle, Stephens is a first-term lawmaker.

Noting that lawmakers were moving to toughen the reporting law, Gov. Corbett said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press he would not be surprised to see it strengthened before the end of the year.

Pennsylvania law currently stipulates that any professionals who work with children must inform their superiors (or the designated person at their place of employment) if they detect physical, sexual, or mental injury to a child under 18.

Anyone can report suspected child abuse or neglect to the state's ChildLine hotline, 1-800-932-0313, and cannot be sued if the report is made in good faith.

Several lawmakers have scheduled a news conference for noon Tuesday in the Capitol rotunda to demand action on various abuse-related bills.

Among them will be Rep. Michael McGeehan (D., Phila), who introduced a bill in March that would give all victims of child sex abuse a two-year window of opportunity to sue their assailants.

Many adults who were abused as children are barred from suing because the statute of limitations on their assaults has expired.

The current Republican chairman of the judiciary committee and the previous Democratic chairman have both refused to hold hearings on McGeehan's bill or bring it up for a vote.

McGeehan first introduced such legislation in 2006, after a grand jury issued a devastating report that accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of a massive cover-up of clergy sexual abuse going back at least 50 years.

With the addition of the Penn State scandal, "I think the floodgates are open," McGeehan said last week. "This explodes the idea that sex abuse is just a problem in Philadelphia, or of priests, or that window legislation targets the Catholic Church."

John Salveson, president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, agreed. What happened in State College "absolutely brings home what we've been saying for years - that [sex abuse] is not just a Philadelphia issue or a Catholic issue. It's a kids' issue."

McGeehan also is the author of a related bill that would allow minors who have been sexually assaulted to sue a government entity, such as a public school, if it facilitated the assault. Under the state's present sovereign immunity law, abuse victims are barred from suing public entities.

McGeehan's legislative aide, Pamela Otto, said last week that Penn State apparently was not covered under sovereign immunity because it is a private institution, despite the large amount of state funding it receives.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or


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