Penn State sex case rivets public, fuels change
Jerry Sandusky's brief call to a TV sportscaster may have done more to raise concern over child-sex crimes than three decades of church-abuse cases.
Penn State's retired defensive coordinator quickly denied being a pedophile when Bob Costas asked him. But the 67-year-old Sandusky paused, and rambled, when asked whether he's sexually attracted to children.
''He doesn't want to label himself what he is,'' said former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who once led a grand jury investigation into the Philadelphia archdiocese and is working with the charity Sandusky founded to conduct an internal investigation. ''This is a pattern of conduct that is so classic in its context: the grooming, the young boys, the gifts, the flattery, the meals, the trips, the jock thing, the touching.''
The allegations against Sandusky have toppled iconic coach Joe Paterno and the university's president and riveted the public in the two weeks since his arrest. People are poring over the grand jury report and asking why it took years for witness accounts and police investigations to surface.
Sandusky was charged with abusing eight boys over 15 years, sometimes on campus. He vows to fight the 40-count indictment.
''There are far more numbers (of victims and abusers) in the priest-abuse scandal, and one might even think larger violations of trust,'' said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia. ''Ironically, more people are upset (now).''
The 2002 case of one abusive priest in the Archdiocese of Boston led to years of revelations that bishops across the U.S. had for decades moved accused priests among churches without alerting parents or police.
The Penn State case may give more political muscle to those trying to get victims more time to file criminal complaints or lawsuits against the church. Sandusky assaulted some of his boys more than a decade ago, the grand jury said. More accusers have contacted police or lawyers this month, after learning about the report or Sandusky's denials.
''This drives home the point; this is not a Catholic issue. It never has been. It's a kids' issue,'' said John Salveson, president of the Pennsylvania-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, which supports laws to extend legal time limits. ''Whether Penn State, whether the Boy Scouts, whether it's the Catholic church, it's not about those institutions. I think people are starting to see the difference.''
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has fought such legislation in Pennsylvania, Colorado and other states, as the hierarchy struggled with abuse claims that have bankrupted some dioceses.
Philadelphia's new archbishop, Charles Chaput, arrived this fall from Denver, where he had publicly apologized to victims and tried to quickly settle litigation. The Denver archdiocese settled 43 claims for a total of $8.3 million from 2005 to 2008 under his watch.
Chaput arrived in Philadelphia in the midst of an unprecedented criminal priest-abuse case. Three priests are charged with raping boys while a former high-ranking diocesan official faces child endangerment charges stemming from accusations that he transferred predators to new parishes.
But because of the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, the archdiocese has not spent millions of dollars on civil suits. Abraham's grand jury concluded in 2005 that 63 priests had been credibly accused, but the cases were all too old to prosecute or pursue through lawsuits.
Lawmakers that year extended the age limit to file lawsuits to age 30, from age 20, but the change was not retroactive. Advocates now want to extend the limit to age 50 and give victims a two-year window to file lawsuits after reporting abuse.
At a news conference Monday in Harrisburg, advocates said current practices can delay investigations and do not protect the victims' rights.
''Really what happened at Penn State is happening to lots of kids everywhere,'' said Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee.
The archdiocese said Friday it would need to carefully review any legislation that would extend the statute of limitations on reporting child abuse.
''Any legislation needs to be carefully considered, and we believe immediate reporting of alleged child abuse, and clarity on how a report is to be made and by whom, is critical,'' it said in a statement.
The church vowed to support ''legislation that is fair and just for all involved ... as private and public institutions in this state work together to protect children.''
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, along with Chaput's predecessors in Philadelphia, vigorously fought time extensions in the past.
''The worst thing he can do is continue the policies of the previous administration,'' Abraham said.
Now in private practice, she has been retained by The Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded for disadvantaged youth, to conduct an internal investigation of who knew what. Sandusky met the boys he's accused of molesting through the group, which runs camps, trips and other activities for children in several counties.
Even in her new role, she continues to support the time extensions for filing lawsuits.
''To convince witnesses to come forward, and tell these horrible secrets, it's very difficult,'' Abraham said.
At a news conference Tuesday in support of the victim bills, 78-year-old state lawmaker Louise Williams Bishop stunned colleagues as she painfully revealed that she had been raped as a child.
''People are beginning to understand why it's so hard to disclose, that if you've been victimized, sometimes the embarrassment, the shame keeps you quiet,'' Cervone said. ''(There's) the fear that disclosure will be worse than the crime.''