Child sex abuse victims tell their stories to Congress

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WASHINGTON -- He was sexually abused by a trusted coach who was considered God-like in his sport. Adults had reason to know about fondling that occurred on youth sports trips. His abuser used his position as a coach to prey on vulnerable boys from broken homes.

"Sound familiar?" Sheldon Kennedy asked members of a Senate panel during a hearing Tuesday.

Although the hearing was spurred by allegations of child sex abuse at Penn State University, Mr. Kennedy has no connection to the campus, its football program or alleged perpetrator Jerry Sandusky. Rather, Mr. Kennedy, a former National Hockey League player, was abused by the revered coach of his Canadian junior hockey team.

His story is remarkably similar to that of 10 boys who said Mr. Sandusky, a former Penn State football assistant coach, abused them on and off campus.

That's because predators tend to use the same tactics to target victims, gain trust and hide their actions, Mr. Kennedy and other child advocates told the Subcommittee on Children and Families.

They were called to Washington to help Congress find ways to protect children, and a key to that, testifiers said, is empowering adults to intervene.

"Senators, you need to give all adults working with children and all parents the tools to recognize and respond to abuse when it first arises," Mr. Kennedy testified.

Adults need to be trained to recognize signs of abuse so they can feel confident enough to report it, said Mr. Kennedy, who reported his abuse in 1997. His former coach, Graham Jones, was convicted in that case and again -- just last week -- in cases involving two other former hockey players.

"In every case of child abuse -- certainly my own -- there are people who had a gut feeling that something was wrong but didn't do anything about it," he said.

Subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said too many times children are victimized twice -- first by the abuser and then by those who look the other way to protect institutions considered beyond reproach. "No institution should be considered 'too big to report' and no adult should ever feel that their job is to protect a brand or institution over the well-being of a child."

The Sandusky case raised questions about how alleged abuse could have occurred over 12 years without university leaders reporting it to law enforcement. It also exposed problems in Pennsylvania law, which requires adults in specified positions of authority to report evidence of child abuse merely to their supervisors rather than to law enforcement or child welfare officials.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who requested the hearing, wants states, including his own, to broaden reporting laws. He said all adults should be required to report suspected abuse.

"If we just left it to an itemized list of folks, it just lets too many people off the hook," Mr. Casey said after the hearing.

Ms. Mikulski said every adult has a responsibility to report abuse and that lawmakers' role is to provide a legislative framework and enforcement.

"Regardless of who you are, if you see something, if you know something, then report," she said during the hearing.

While such laws are in states' purview, Congress can encourage action by threatening to withhold federal funding to those whose laws aren't stringent enough. Mr. Casey is proposing such legislation but isn't rushing his colleagues to enact it, saying he wants them to have time to craft it carefully enough to offer substantial protection to children and the adults trying to help them.

Frank P. Cervone, executive director of Philadelphia-based Support Center for Child Advocates, said Mr. Casey's legislation invites serious discussion. His organization provides free legal services to abused children.

"Why are we adults reluctant to report?" Mr. Cervone asked. "We think: 'If I step in here, it'll be worse for the child,' to which I say, 'How can it get worse? We fool ourselves if we think that stopping a crime is not the best solution.' "


Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: 703-996-9292 or tmauriello@post-gazette.com .


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