- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University is galvanizing lawmakers in several states and Congress to find fresh ways to capture predators and stamp out abuse.

The legislative attention is welcome news to some child-abuse protection advocates: “We’re on the front end [of the Penn State scandal] and I think we’ll see more [laws] to come,” said Jeff Dion, deputy executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Other advocates warn against “knee-jerk” efforts to pass laws that sound good but don’t stop abuse.

The Penn State scandal, like others before it, is likely to produce “a lot of garment-rending,” calls for action, a blue-ribbon panel and some legislation before it’s on to the next crisis, said Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children. “But the problem with just passing more laws is that if they’re not used, they don’t help kids.”

“They say that hard cases make bad law. Horror stories make worse law,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

At a Tuesday news conference in Harrisburg, Pa., leaders of the National Center for Victims of Crime and an adult victim of child sex-abuse stood with several Democrat lawmakers who pledged to advance their bills to prevent or address such crimes.

“I was not able to pursue criminal or civil charges in Pennsylvania because by the time I came to terms with the abuse, the statutes of limitation … had expired,” said Paul McLaughlin, now in his 40s. He added that he had tried to tell Penn State officials in the early 2000s that he had been “brutally sexually abused” by a Penn State professor when he was age 11 to 15, “but these administrators refused to consider my reports and evidence of the abuse.”

“I’m very sorry and sad that what has happened at Penn State has brought attention to these issues, but [I] cannot be sorry that attention is being given to legislation that is necessary to protect our children,” Pennsylvania State Sen. Wayne Fontana said this week, calling for passage of his 6-year-old bill to clarify and expand reporting rules for child sexual-abuse.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, asked for an expedited federal hearing into the scandal, which revolves around eight child-abuse allegations against former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Elsewhere, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster asked the state legislature to require anyone who sees child sex abuse to report it, as is the case in 18 states, including Maryland.

In New York, Republican lawmakers are proposing an act to require college coaches and other school professionals to report cases of child abuse.

In Maryland, Republican State Sen. Nancy Jacobs is drafting legislation to assess “a criminal penalty for not reporting child abuse as required under law.”

Many of these changes are welcome, said Mr. Dion. Expanding or ending statutes of limitation is important, he said, because it can take decades for victims to disclose what happened to them and decide to charge their abusers. Also, “pedophiles don’t retire” and can keep abusing children into their elder years. If perpetrators’ early victims can still bring legal action against them, those “who were previously unknown and unreported” can be exposed.”

“There is a need to extend the statutes of limitations” on abuse, agreed Mr. Wexler. “But let’s not kid ourselves. That will make a lot of legislators look good in their press releases. It does not affect a large proportion of young people.”

What is worrisome is the media hype on Penn State - “I am also afraid that we’re going to create another McMartin-style panic,” said Mr. Wexler, referring to the 1980s molestation scandal involving staff at a California preschool. The trial roiled the country with its salacious charges but ended with no convictions of child abuse.

“A lot of the same rhetoric is coming out and the same failure to check facts,” said Mr. Wexler.

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