2011’s Lessons on How We Can Better Protect Children From Sexual Abuse

Posted in: Criminal Law

2011 was a momentous year for the protection of children.  This was the year when the public learned that the anatomy of child sex abuse cover-ups is the same regardless of the institution involved.

In November, a grand jury report was released alleging that former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused 8 children.  Even more important for our understanding of cycles of child sex abuse were the allegations that leaders in the Penn State administration knew about the abuse yet did nothing to stop Sandusky.

Those leaders included President Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno, both of whom were fired.  In addition, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Gary Schultz are now facing a criminal trial for perjury, which is predicated on the theory that they knew about the abuse as well.

Not long after the Penn State scandal broke, Syracuse basketball coach Bernie Fine was named as another alleged child sex abuser by two men.  It emerged that famed head basketball coach Jim Boeheim had heard of the allegations several years earlier.  At first, Boeheim jumped to defend Fine.  But he soon had to retract his rash statements when other survivors came forward, and when a taped conversation was released in which Fine’s wife essentially admitted that Fine had abused children in their home, and that she had had sex with one of his victims.

Then we learned about The Citadel, and its camps, where graduates had abused children.  One alleged abuser, who was not reported to the authorities by Citadel officials with the information, allegedly went on to abuse more children in a nearby community.

Based on these incidents, here are the Top 10 lessons about child sex abuse that I believe we’ve learned (or re-learned) in 2011:

10.  Organizations cover up child sex abuse.  Period.  University or church, day care center or family, kids are at risk.  Right now.

9.  The pattern of the cover-up of child sex abuse is the same, regardless of the institution.  We see the same patterns, for instance, at Penn State and in the Catholic     Church.

8.  It takes all of us to cover up child sex abuse.  One adult after another let down Sandusky’s victims—from the head of the University, to the head football coach, to an assistant coach, to the janitors.

7.  The information about ongoing child sex abuse is all around us and needs to be put to constructive ends by adults taking action when they suspect abuse, rather than protecting fellow adults who are accused of abuse.

6.  Abuse is a lot more prevalent than anyone wants to believe—1 in 4 girls and 1 in 5 boys.  So when you get a whiff of it, pay attention and take action.

5.  Those who come forward to allege that they were the victims of child sex abuse rarely make up their claims.  To the contrary, they tend to skimp on the details. Often the abuse is much worse, but they cannot bear to describe its full extent.

4.  States must enact better laws if our children are going to truly be safe from sexual abuse.

3.  We need better mandatory reporting laws, with strict penalties for failure to report.

2.  We need to eliminate the statutes of limitations (SOLs) for child sex abuse, to reflect the reality that it takes most survivors many years to come forward.  And we desperately need windows that will let victims whose SOLs expired to get to court and name millions of operating child abusers.

1.  Politicians are behind the learning curve on these issues, and they need to be prodded to make children, and child sex abuse, a priority.

Although this year served to open the nation’s eyes to some of the realities of child sex abuse, and how to combat it, many in power have failed to learn the true lessons of these scandals.  For instance, Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett has dramatically slowed down the pace of reform in the wake of the Penn State scandal by endorsing the creation of a commission to study the issues—one of the tried and true means of avoiding actual accountability.

Meanwhile, New York’s Gov. Cuomo has backed adding university employees to New York’s mandatory reporters, which would be a genuine step forward—but he says he worries about faulty memories if SOLs are eliminated.  Is Cuomo personally on the fence, or is he being influenced by the Catholic bishops, who are surely still irate about his support for gay marriage?

Whatever Corbett’s or Cuomo’s political motives may be, the right answer, from the standpoint of justice, is clear:  In the end, this is all about children.  If the relationships of these powerful men are allowed to get in the way of the right legal reform, then we will see yet another instance of the powerful covering up for abusers, and turning a blind eye as children suffer.  And haven’t we seen enough of that already this year?

Posted in: Criminal Law