Pa. lawmaker reveals own childhood sexual abuse to push bills in wake of Sandusky scandal

State Rep. Dennis O'Brien comforts Rep. Louise Williams Bishop after she spoke out for the first time about being a victim of child sexual abuse when she was 12. Bishop said she buried her pain and lingering trauma as she counseled others as a minister.
State Rep. Dennis O'Brien comforts Rep. Louise Williams Bishop after she spoke out for the first time about being a victim of child sexual abuse when she was 12. Bishop said she buried her pain and lingering trauma as she counseled others as a minister. (CHRISTINE BAKER / Harrisburg Patriot-News)
Posted: November 16, 2011

HARRISBURG - State Rep. Louise Williams Bishop kept her secret for almost a half-century, through her years as a radio talk show host, a minister, and a state lawmaker.

The allegations surrounding Pennsylvania State University, she said, finally gave her the courage to share her story of childhood sexual abuse.

In the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday, Bishop told of how her stepfather had raped her when she was 12 in the rural Georgia farmhouse where she lived with her extended family.

"He was cunning and charming, touchy, feely. I didn't realize what was happening to me," said Bishop.

The news conference was the latest public event in a flurry of activity this week following the indictment of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky - accused of 40 counts of child abuse - and two other Penn State officials charged in an alleged cover-up.

Bishop (D., Phila.) and others, including Rep. Mike McGeehan (D., Phila), are calling for movement on child-abuse bills that have languished for years in the legislature.

One would eliminate the civil statute of limitations on childhood sex crimes and a second would open a two-year window for abuse victims to file civil claims.

Bishop was composed but, she said, more nervous than she had ever been in any public appearance as she told her story to an audience that included about 20 of her fellow lawmakers, members of the media, child advocates, and passersby.

It was just before Easter, Bishop said, when her mother left their farm in tiny Cairo - known as the home of Karo Syrup - for the night and went to a neighboring town to borrow a sewing machine. Her mother wanted to finish making their new church dresses.

"I found someone in the bed with me," said Bishop. "He was doing a little more than feeling and touching."

Bishop, 78, said she didn't know how to react at the time. She was fearful of telling her mother, who was married to her abuser, and worried that her grandfather might kill the man and end up in jail.

"I lived with fears for a lot of years," she said.

Later Tuesday, Gov. Corbett said he supported the creation of a bipartisan joint legislative and executive branch task force to study child-abuse law and reporting requirements. But he cautioned against rushing to make changes in the law, saying, "We cannot react in haste."

"I think we need to be dispassionate," he said. "We have to sit down and look at [the] situation of reporting. We need to look at this and do it right."

The bills sponsored by McGeehan and Bishop have been opposed by the Catholic Church. Other proposals have been met with resistance from prior administrations.

Victims say a stronger legislative response is long overdue.

Another Philadelphia lawmaker, Sen. LeAnna Washington, herself also a victim of abuse as a child, is urging the administration to create an office of children's ombudsman - an idea rejected by the Rendell administration as too costly - who could serve as an independent voice for victims outside child welfare agencies.

In the Rotunda, Bishop told the hushed crowd that her stepfather raped her on a second occasion before she learned how to protect herself, first by making sure her siblings were around her at night and then, at 15, by moving to Philadelphia to live with an uncle.

She said she never told her husband how she lost her virginity. "He thought I was promiscuous," she said.

Bishop said she buried her pain and lingering trauma as she counseled others as a minister.

For 20 years, she said in an interview later, she asked God what her purpose was in Harrisburg as she drove from Philadelphia through the Lancaster farm country that was just like the landscape she left behind in Georgia so many years ago.

The Penn State scandal changed that, she said: "I finally got an answer to why I am here."


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

 

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