By NYS Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey (Times Union)
November 21, 2011
Details continue to unfold about the shocking scandal over allegations of child sexual abuse and cover-up at Penn State University. I think this is one of those "teachable moments" where other, similarly terrible incidents don't usually get these same front-page headlines.
Some experts call child sexual abuse a national epidemic. The statistics they cite are startling: 20 percent of America's children suffer sexual abuse, according to the National Institute of Justice; of those, 56 percent suffer that abuse at the hands of family members or people they trust and respect; the average pedophile abuses more than 100 children; and only 10 percent of perpetrators are ever exposed.
There are several parallels between the devastating revelations from Penn State and other instances of abuse that have not received such widespread attention. Here are some lessons we can draw from today's headlines:
Abusers exploit a power relationship: The one thing all abusers have in common is that they hold a position of influence and trust in the life of a child and use their power to violate that trust. People who abuse kids are most often family members, family friends or relatives. But they are also coaches, religious leaders, doctors and youth workers.
Reputation is more important than kids: When cases of abuse arise, there is a tendency to protect the institution first. What happened at Penn State is no different from practices repeatedly exposed over the past decade in the Catholic Church and other religious denominations, in the Scouting movement or even within families. Image, bad publicity and damage to the institution are the highest concerns.
When leaders of a school, church or youth group fail to report what they know about potential crimes, the real damage they do is to the child victims. When the charges become public, as at Penn State, the organization is damaged anyway.
Abuse continues when not reported: When an incident of abuse is not reported to law enforcement, the pedophile not only avoids punishment for a crime, but continues to prey on youngsters.
In the Penn State case, a grand jury identified eight alleged victims, but another dozen potential victims of this one coach have since come forward.
Laws about reporting criminal abuse vary widely among states: As the laws vary, so do criminal and civil statutes of limitations. In New York, they are so unreasonably lenient that perpetrators successfully evade justice by simply waiting out the statute of limitations and are able to continue to abuse yet more children.
Our lax laws mean that some victims even go to other states to get justice. Victims of abuse by a then-priest of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese saw their abuser convicted earlier this year in Berkshire County, Mass.
The Child Victims Act (A5488), which I proposed, would extend the statute of limitations in New York by five years. It would also create a civil "window" to suspend the statute for one year so that victims of earlier crimes can come forward. The discovery process in court, exposing previously hidden pedophiles, will protect future generations of kids.
Public institutions face up to allegations more quickly: One important issue we see in the Penn State scandal is that public institutions often face up to their responsibilities more quickly than private ones. Action by the Penn State trustees was relatively swift when they were confronted by the facts about what had been hidden. When other equally creditable accusations are made about abuse within private sector organizations and institutions, officials more often stonewall and the wait is often years or even decades for the mere acknowledgment of responsibility.
When the extent of child sexual abuse in our society first came to my attention eight years ago, I felt rage. I still do every time I hear about yet another incident of rape or other sexual crime against a child.
I see a lot of discussion in media coverage of the Penn State scandal about the impact on the university and its reputation, and about what it means in the world of collegiate football. Politicians are shocked; law enforcement officials are troubled and community leaders are sad.
But the word I see missing from most accounts is rage, over what has happened to children.
For this latest child sexual abuse scandal to be a truly "teachable moment," all of us must feel rage about crimes against children and then do something about it.
What I am doing is trying to protect future generations of kids by making the Child Victims Act of New York state law.
Margaret M. Markey, D- Queens, is a member of the state Assembly. The Child Victims Act of New York has been adopted three times by the Assembly but has yet to advance to a vote in the Senate.