Pa. lawmakers scramble to draft child-sex-abuse bills

Posted: November 14, 2011

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania State University child sex-abuse allegations dominated the conversation here Monday as lawmakers rushed to draft bills in the hope of preventing similar human tragedies.

From an emotional outpouring, during an unrelated hearing on child welfare, by a lawmaker who survived childhood sexual abuse to the raft of legislation being primed for quick consideration, it was clear that the pain of the grand jury's findings is being felt across the state.

Lawmakers from both parties readied bills for quick movement in the month left before the General Assembly breaks for the holidays.

Chief among the bills is one sponsored by Sen. Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) that would make it mandatory for anyone who receives a college paycheck to report child abuse.

The current law applies uniformly to all employees at K-12 schools, but is ambiguous at the college level - even more so for Penn State given the contractual relationships it had with the Second Mile, the charity founded by alleged abuser Jerry Sandusky.

The bill also would require that any allegations go directly to the head of the institution and to the state Department of Public Welfare, to avoid the potential for institutional protection.

"This . . . showed the weakness in the law not in extending to all employees in higher education," said Ward, who said she expected her bill to be voted on by the end of the month.

Gov. Corbett has said he would support legislation to toughen reporting requirements in abuse cases.

Ward has another bill that would increase the severity of a charge of failing to report child abuse.

Currently it is a summary offense, the same category as a speeding ticket, which was pointed out by the lawyer representing Gary Schultz, a former Penn State vice president who is charged with failing to report abuse in a 2002 case mentioned in the grand jury report.

Ward's bill would make a first offense a first-degree misdemeanor and a subsequent offense a third-degree felony.

Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.) introduced a bill that would require that all child-abuse allegations be reported directly to police, something Ward said she feared could lead to false charges.

"The current system," Boyle said, "is clearly inadequate and failed the alleged victims in the Penn State case."

A vote is expected this week in a House committee on a bill whose timing is coincidental but that would apply to the Penn State case.

The bill proposed by Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) would create an offense of sexual assault by a sports official - including club coaches and referees, and employees of nonprofits like the Second Mile that engage in sports activities.

Vereb said the law would establish the category of statutory rape for those between ages 16 and 18. Currently, the law applies only to anyone under 16.

"This closes the two-year gap and gives prosecutors flexibility," he said.

For State Rep. Louise Bishop (D., Phila.), the Penn State child-abuse allegations brought back painful personal memories.

She told members of the House Children and Youth Committee, where she is the ranking Democrat, that she had been abused twice when she was 12. She said that, in the last two nights, she has not slept.

"If anyone can bring a stop to this, it starts here," said Bishop, who, as an ordained minister, has counseled sex-abuse victims.

Committee Chairman Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) clasped Bishop's hand as he announced a hearing scheduled for Dec. 5 to give victims of childhood sexual abuse a chance to speak.

"We can't go on with business as usual while a villain walks around free on bail," said Bishop. "If he'd shot the children with a gun, he'd be in jail. But this is another kind of bullet that takes their lives and takes their hopes and dreams forever."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com, or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

|
|
|
|
|