Congress weighs in on child sexual abuse, promises tougher laws

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 13, 2011 

WASHINGTON — He never thought anyone would believe him, said Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player and child sexual abuse victim.

The hockey star — he played for the Detroit Red Wings, the Boston Bruins and the Calgary Flames — told a Senate panel Tuesday that the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his coach as a junior player took 10 years for him to report.

"Why didn't I say anything?" Kennedy said. "This is the question that I asked myself again, and again, and again. It's the question I know everyone else was asking. And it's the question that plagues the millions of sexual abuse victims around the world."

There often are adults who have gut feelings that something is wrong, Kennedy said, but they do nothing because they're worried about getting involved or because they assume the authorities will take care of it.

In his case, his abuser was someone who in Canada had nearly God-like status, Kennedy said. It is not much different than the status of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, who is accused of multiple counts of abuse.

"And that's what pedophiles and predators are counting on," said Kennedy, who called on Congress to find a way to empower adults to do more. "They are counting on the public's ignorance or — worse yet — their indifference. That's what keeps abusers in business. And that, senators, is what you have to address."

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who asked for the hearing, called sexual abuse the "ultimate betrayal" of a child's trust. It happens when adults fail, Casey told the committee, and he has proposed legislation that holds adults more accountable for reporting sex crimes against children.

Although prompted by the Penn State scandal, Tuesday's hearing focused instead on ways to protect, intervene and deter abuse, said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a former child neglect social worker in Baltimore and the chairwoman of the Children and Families subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Mikulski said there were too many examples where children had been double victims — first at the time of the abuse, and then when abuse is overlooked, ignored or covered up, particularly in cases where there's an effort to protect institutions considered beyond reproach or "too big to fail."

"We want to break that code of silence," she said. "No institution should ever be too big to report, or too famous to report. and no adult should ever feel they are protected because of the brand they represent."

"Every adult has a responsibility to a child," she said. "If you see something, and you know something, then report it. Do something."

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., urged wider use of criminal background checks, but he warned that offenders who are unknown are the greatest threat. "It is adults with whom the greatest responsibility of breaking the silence rests," he said.

The committee met the same day as Sandusky appeared in court and waived a preliminary hearing. Sandusky, who in 1977 founded The Second Mile charity for at-risk youth, faces 52 charges that he sexually abused 10 boys between 1994 and 2009.

So many people asked to testify at the Senate hearing that the committee had to turn down some high-profile advocates, including Lauren Book, a Florida woman and victim of sexual abuse whose prevention curriculum is being implemented in all Florida kindergarten classes in January.

Book, who submitted a written statement to the committee, called for legislation that would use federal funding to universities as a hammer to compel child abuse reporting. She also suggested administrative, civil and criminal penalties for failing to report, or for preventing another person from reporting. Also, since campus sexual assaults in general may not get proper investigation and prosecution because of overly close relationships between universities and campus police departments, she called for the ability of federal prosecutors to investigate such crimes.

"The Penn State and Syracuse tragedies are either a national wakeup call and teaching moment or a lost opportunity," Book said. "How we respond as a society, as a government and as individuals will demonstrate whether we truly value children or are willing to let them continue to be a commodity to be exploited."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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