Calls arise in Capitol to change Pennsylvania's child-abuse laws
Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lackawanna County, center, comforts Rep. Louise Bishop, D-Philadelphia, after she spoke out for the first time about being a victim of child molestation by a relative when she was 12 during a rally Tuesday to strengthen Pennsylvania's child sex abuse laws at the Capitol in Harrisburg.
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HARRISBURG -- State legislators are calling for speedy approval of several changes to the state's child-abuse reporting laws, pointing to some potential protections that they say have been lingering for years.
"Abuse happens every day, in every class, in every occupation," said Rep. Mike McGeehan, D-Philadelphia. "I hope once and for all the Penn State travesty has opened people's eyes."
As they voiced a need for urgency in responding to the allegations of child sex abuse involving former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, others -- including Gov. Tom Corbett -- said state officials should take a slow, deliberative approach in examining where those rules for reporting abuse fall short.
A noontime rally organized by the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse showcased the handful of legislative proposals that have been introduced since news of the Penn State allegations broke last week.
Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said she will introduce a measure to include those who work at higher-education institutions as figures required to report potential abuse, as well as to hike penalties for failing to alert authorities. She also said a task force is being formed among the Legislature, governor's office and Office of Attorney General to address reporting and investigation of child abuse incidents.
Some, like Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, expressed frustration that their proposals for tightening the abuse reporting laws have been discussed for as many as six years without action. Under his proposal, those who witnesses an incident of abuse, as a graduate assistant says he did in one of the Penn State incidents, would be required to contact law enforcement.
"If this bill would have been moved six years ago, there might have been some children saved because of the reporting requirement," Mr. Fontana said.
Those messages struck a particularly personal note for Rep. Louise Bishop, D-Philadelphia, who told the crowd that she was the victim of sexual abuse during her childhood and had not discussed the incidents until recently.
Ms. Bishop is the author of another measure, which would expand Pennsylvania's statute of limitations for pressing charges involving sexual abuse against children.
"Child abuse is on the rise -- it's not going anyplace," she said. "It is a monster, a cunning monster."
Advocates are pushing for other changes, including setting up a two-year window during which victims who cannot press charges because of the age of their crimes can report past incidents to authorities for investigation.
While lawmakers and child-protection advocates called for prompt action, the future of the slew of child-abuse prevention measures remains uncertain.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is the first stop for many of the bills, has cited legal concerns with extending the statute of limitations on such crimes. House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin pointed to more than a dozen measures aimed at protecting children from sexual predators that already have passed that panel this session.
Mr. Corbett -- whose office during his time as attorney general initiated the investigation against Mr. Sandusky -- also said any changes to state law should be carefully considered.
"We need to, in a very dispassionate way, sit down as a Legislature with help from the governor's office and take a look at the whole situation of reporting," Mr. Corbett told reporters. "I think we now have reason to take a good look at this, to take our time and do it right."
First Published November 16, 2011 12:00 am