BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A sexual abuse scandal that rocked Penn State University has resulted in new laws in Louisiana to penalize those who fail to report allegations of child sex abuse and protect those who do.
Three of the bills have been signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The Republican governor said he intends to sign the fourth.
One measure protects whistleblowers who report child sex abuse from employer retaliation, while two others penalize those who fail to report to law enforcement. A fourth adds certain classes of athletics coaches to the list of individuals required to notify authorities if they suspect child sex abuse.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, sponsor of two of the bills, said they would close an unintended loophole in Louisiana law that that didn't make it mandatory for all people to report child abuse if they see it.
"The concern I had was, after the Penn State scandal, there was a lot of allegations regarding individuals who may have had knowledge of the sexual abuse but never disclosed it," Morrell said.
Morrell said many of the employees who might have seen sexual abuse were afraid to report it for fear of losing their jobs, and one of his bills protects whistleblowers from being fired, suspended or demoted when they report allegations.
Last November, the sex abuse scandal involving football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky exploded at Penn State after he was initially charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period.
Among the allegations was a 2002 incident in which then-graduate student Mike McQueary claims he saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a naked boy in a locker room shower. McQueary said he reported the incident to Sandusky's former boss, head football coach Joe Paterno, who then told the university's athletic director.
Pennsylvania's attorney general said despite state law, it was not reported to any law enforcement or child protective agencies. Sandusky now faces 52 criminal counts. He has denied the allegations.
Under previous Louisiana law, child care providers, members of the clergy, mental health workers, elementary and secondary school teachers and others listed in the state children's code were required to report any abuse or neglect they encounter. But Morrell said if you're an average citizen and discover child abuse, the law did not force you to report it.
"So we decided to amend the law and create this new provision that said, 'Listen, if you see a kid being sexually abused, you have an absolute, ironclad responsibility to report that to the legal authorities immediately,'" he said.
Adults who fail to report it could face up to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine if convicted.
Judy Benitez, executive director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, said she understands why lawmakers would want to respond to the Penn State scandal, but the issue is really about morals. Often, she said, when people witness child sex abuse, they perpetrator will be a family member, boss or partner.
"People fail to realize how overwhelming such a realization can be, besides the fact it's shocking to walk in on something like that. I think really what a lot of what's going on to change has already happened in terms of people discussing it," she said.
Her organization cites statistics from a 2000 national report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that says juveniles make up 71 percent of all sex crime victims. Benitez also says it's very hard to aggregate statistics on sexual assault because many victims don't report it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in 2006 on childhood maltreatment and found that adverse childhood experiences were common; 20 percent of participants reported that they had been sexually abused as a child.
Additionally, the Obama administration updated the FBI's decades-old definition of rape in January to include men and children. Benitez says broadening the FBI's previously narrow definition will change the numbers dramatically.
Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who sponsored the measure mandating that coaches report any signs of sexual abuse, said he found the facts surrounding the Pennsylvania case so offensive that he had to come up with a way to strengthen laws that protect children.
"That's where this piece of legislation really came from, it was a reaction to that and the desire to make sure that our laws were strong enough to protect our young people," he said. "I'm glad to see that coaches across the state are going to now understand that when they witness abuse, they need to report it."
Online: House Bills 166 and 577 and Senate Bills 4 and 158 can be found at http://www.legis.la.gov/
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