Is Penn State the Catholic Church?

(Huffington Post) If, as many people believe, the institution that is the Catholic Church should be held legally responsible for the child sexual abuse crimes perpetrated by its priests and the subsequent cover-up of the worldwide scandal by their superiors, then shouldn’t Penn State — not to mention football coach Joe Paterno and other top administrators — be held similarly accountable for the alleged crimes committed by longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky?

By now, the majority of people know that Sandusky, revered by his players and millions of fans, has been accused of, arrested, and charged with 40 counts of sexually abusing children over 15 years, including his time at the university. They know also that Paterno, as well as athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, were made aware of the allegations but did not contact the proper authorities.

Similarly, by now, the majority of people are well aware of the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church worldwide. They know that longtime priests, revered by their legions of parishioners, had been accused of fondling and molesting thousands of youngsters under their charge. And they know that a number of bishops and other church superiors engaged in a massive cloaking campaign.

The similarities are cause of great dismay and condemnation. To be sure, the public should be outraged by reports of heinous crimes made more odious by the orchestrated cover ups perpetrated by superiors of the accused. Yet, whether it is at Penn State or the Catholic Church — or for that matter, Orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the U.S. Swim Team, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the Boy Scouts or far too many other organizations local, national, and global — credible charges of childhood sexual abuse have been exacerbated and made more horrendous by equally credible charges of conspiracy and concealment.

However, current law fails to properly hold responsible not only those who commit the crimes but also those who suppress or obfuscate them.

When otherwise good folks like Paterno fail to exercise their leadership aggressively to stop childhood sexual abuse, perpetrators like accused assistant coach Sandusky keep grooming and molesting kids. Research shows that child predators are compulsive and in the vast majority of cases untreatable. So the only path to the right goal, the protection of children, should start with turning over the culprits to the authorities for investigation as soon as a report is received, as well as publicly identifying the perpetrators so that parents can protect their kids, and making it possible to hold accountable those who conceal the crime.

The first thing that must change are the reporting laws. At present, Pennsylvania is typical, fining those who fail to report a mere $200.00. This is simply not sufficient. All adults who are aware of childhood sexual abuse accusations must be required to report the abuse to the authorities. Failure to do so must result in serious penalties that deter those with information from giving the perpetrator the silence he or she needs. In fact, there needs to be meaningful jail time — let’s say five to 10 years — and real financial consequences, such as a minimum fine of $20,000.

Many in Pennsylvania consider Paterno to be nothing short of sacred, and someone who should be shielded from accountability. They argue that he did what he was obligated to do by current law by reporting the allegations to Curley, his direct superior. Compounding matters, Penn State president Graham Spanier has now stated his unconditional support for his athletic director and vice president, neither of whom reported Sandusky to the police after Paterno informed them. Paterno did the bare minimum, and nothing else; they did less.

Why should that be enough, though? Why should an adult’s reputation outweigh the welfare of a child? If they had all faced jail time and meaningful fines for failure to report child sex abuse, I would argue they would have been far more likely — and, indeed, compelled — to do the right thing. They could have prevented so many children from being Sandusky’s victims. They didn’t and the law must not let this happen again.

Nor should current law prevent those victimized as children from pursuing legal remedy as adults. The statutes of limitations on childhood sexual abuse in most states are too short, and give perpetrators the power to work under a cloak of invisibility created by the law. In Pennsylvania, right now, the SOLs require victims to come forward by the time they are 30 for civil suits and 50 for criminal prosecution. What is sad, though, is that five years ago, the SOLs were significantly shorter, so for many victims in Pennsylvania (as well as numerous other states), their claims expired and they are therefore shut out of the justice system.

Pennsylvania legislators currently have a pending bill that would fix this problem, by opening a window — a set time period for victims to initiate legal proceedings against their perpetrators. Passing this legislation would perform an essential public service in that the names and crucial information about abusers would be exposed. Since most abusers do not “age out” of abusing children, even naming a 67-year-old like Sandusky can prevent child abuse into the future. California and Delaware have embraced such reform, and others, including Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin, are considering the same. In California, the public learned the identities of 300 child predators.

Unfortunately, the chair of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Ron Marsico, is holding the bill hostage, refusing to even hold hearings. The most active, well-financed lobbyist against this bill — as it is in each state in which window legislation has been introduced — is the Catholic Conference, so one may assume that Marsico, a Catholic, is kowtowing to the conference to assist it in keeping its secrets and perpetuating the cover up. That is just as despicable as the Penn State officials’ failures.

It is estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused, and it happens where we least expect it — a priest, a coach, and far too often, a family member. But we are in the midst of a revolution in which child victims are finding their voice and society is finding its proper values. Now, those in power who somehow permitted children to be at risk need to be seen under brighter light. The status quo is intolerable. For every abuser there is another child out there to be discovered. If we want the world to be a better place for our children, we must demand accountability and legal reforms that make it happen.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Professor of Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York. The author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008), she holds two master’s degrees from Penn State.