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Sex Abuse Bills on the Docket in Harrisburg

By Sari Heidenreich, Contributing WriterIn light of last week’s indictment of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, Pennsylvania lawmakers held a press conference Tuesday afternoon to call for action on several bills that would extend the statute of limitations on alleged child sexual abuse and increase mandatory reporting requirements.

Below is a summary of some of the bills supported at the conference.

S.B. 549 — Sponsored by Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny), the bill amends the Child Protective Services law by lowering the threshold when suspected child abuse by a school employee must be reported and investigated. It would require all reports to be made in the same way regardless of the alleged offense or identify of the suspect. It would also make available now-confidential information, contained in a report on the issue,  to the suspect’s employer. Fontana said the information would be limited to facts and the employee’s suitability in the workplace. Finally, the bill strengthen the civil and criminal immunity provisions for those who report.

Fontana, who introduced a version of this bill in 2005, said it “is not a knee-jerk reaction to what happened at Penn State … it’s a well thought out work produce that has been developed and approved over six years. I’ve asked the Senate leadership to act now but moving SB 549 to a full vote.”

Status: Referred to Senate Appropriations Committee, June 20, 2011

H.B. 832 —  Rep. Louise Bishop (D-Philadelphia) said she has introduced this legislation, which would lift the statute of limitations for civil and criminal cases regarding child sexual abuse, for six years. After speaking of her own experience, Bishop advocated for her bill saying, it especially is important for male victims who often don’t come forward until they are 35 of 40-years old.

“That’s what this bill that lifts the statutory limit is so critical. They too cannot talk about it until they have reached a certain age, until they’re secure enough to know that you’re not going to hold it against them and blame them for it.”

Supporting this legislation John Salveson, president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said lifting the statute of limitations for civil cases is incredibly important given that many sexual assault cases do not have enough evidence to be heard in a criminal court. A civil trial, Salveson said, serves to give the victim their day in court while also exposing alleged sexual criminals.

Status: Proposed to the House Judiciary Committee, February 28, 2011

H.B. 1990 — Sponsor of the bill, Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-Philadelphia), said in a press release last week that his legislation would close the loophole made clear by the Penn State scandal “by requiring those who are aware of the abuse to report it to law enforcement authorities, rather than simply following an in-house chain of command.”

The press release state that Boyle’s legislation would change current law so that staff members of institutions must immediately notify a law enforcement official.

“What we’re dealing with is institutionalized abuse. Basically, cover ups. And current law in Pennsylvania allows for cover ups because, quite simply, in the case of Penn State neither neither Joe Paterno or Mike McQueary had to report what they saw or heard second-hand.”

Status: Proposed to the House Judiciary Committee November 15, 2011

H.B. 878 — With the statute of limitations for an civil suit expiring on a victim’s twentieth birthday, this bill would provide a two year window for victims of child sexual abuse to bring forth a civil suit that would otherwise have not been considered. Michael P. McGeehan (D-Philadelphia) is the prime sponsor of the bill.

Salveson said this legislation is the most helpful given it’s success in other states, such as California, noting that if the statute of limitations is extended, as other bills suggest, it would only apply to victims who are abused after the new law takes effect. The two year window would open the opportunity up to all victims.
Status: Proposed to House Judiciary Committee, September 27, 2011

— Aging and Youth Committee Chairperson Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland)  is now sponsoring two bills, which are yet to be introduced. The first would make employees of higher education institutions mandated reporters and the second would increase the penalties for those who fail to report. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, failing to report child abuse “is a summary offense, the same category as a speeding ticket, which was pointed out by the lawyer representing Gary Schultz, a former Penn State vice president who is charged with failing to report abuse in a 2002 case mentioned in the grand jury report.”

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