Cover-Ups, Justice and Reform

New York Times
July 8, 2012

The guilty verdicts in two major child sex abuse cases, and the e-mails revealing the extent of the cover-up in one of the cases, the Penn State nightmare, could be more than just examples of justice delivered — if they provide impetus for new accountability and deterrence.

The cases — the conviction of Jerry Sandusky for the sexual assault of children under his care, and the conviction of Msgr. William Lynn for helping to cover up cases of abuse by priests — contain lessons for combating abuse and the cover-ups that often follow.

Children who are sexually abused can take many years to speak about their ordeals, if they ever do. Much of the evidence for the cover-up in the Lynn case came from victims barred from bringing criminal charges or civil claims under the applicable statute of limitations.

Existing laws need to be recalibrated to make them more protective of children and less protective of adults who prey on them. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders have failed to heed rising calls for such reforms. But some other jurisdictions are beginning to take action.

In June, Louisiana enacted a whistle-blower law that will allow people to report child sex abuse to law enforcement officials without risking getting fired for it — a reaction in part to the Sandusky case.

A groundbreaking measure just approved by the Judiciary Committees in both chambers of New Jersey's State Legislature would wipe out the civil statute of limitations for filing child sex abuse complaints, including for victims for whom the current time limit has expired. Approval by the full Legislature is a strong possibility. (New Jersey's limits on criminal abuse filings ended years ago.)

In Pennsylvania, a less ambitious plan that would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal liability and extend it for civil cases just passed the Judiciary Committee of the state's House. It awaits further action.

Laws should encourage reporting of abuse and fairness for victims. Unrealistic, arbitrary time limits for filing cases subject the victims to yet another injustice.