WASHINGTON - Using the Pennsylvania State University scandal as a catalyst to review federal child-protection law, a Senate panel is considering legislation that would require all adults, not just social-service professionals, to report child molestation to police.
"Child abuse is the ultimate betrayal . . . and it happens because adults fail," said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), sponsor of what he calls the "Speak Up to Protect Every Abused Kid Act of 2011."
An expansion of a 1974 federal law on child-abuse prevention, it would put reporting responsibility on every adult, but allow each state to determine how to implement that mandate.
For more than two hours Tuesday, the panel heard testimony from such experts as Frank Cervone, director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia, which provides free legal services for abused and neglected children.
Alluding to the arrest of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in the alleged assaults of children over more than a decade, Cervone said, "We needed these scandals . . . needed even these bad actors, to bring this discussion forward."
Children often are victimized by a trusted adult, the experts agreed, then victimized a second time when other adults in whom they confide do not believe them.
However, Cervone added, "there is another theme in the Penn State case that should not go unnoticed. Lives were changed because a couple of moms believed their children, and now are standing with them."
The testimony before the subcommittee on children and families, and about 100 spectators, was moderated by Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.).
"Sen. Casey asked for this hearing, but it will not focus only on Pennsylvania . . . because [abuse] goes on in every state," she said. And in every state are "adults who listen, but in order to protect the brand of an institution, or the reputation of a team, don't report it."
She added, "It takes a village to protect a child."
Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player who rocked the Canadian sports world when he disclosed that he had been molested for years by a youth-hockey coach, emphasized the need for prevention strategies. Adults, he told the panel, must be trained to spot abused children.
Last week, Kennedy's former coach, Graham James, pleaded guilty to sexual assaults involving two former players. He had already served 31/2 years in prison for abusing Kennedy and others.
After playing for the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, and Calgary Flames, Kennedy cofounded Respect Group Inc., an online training program to educate adult youth leaders about abuse.
"Punishing the bad guys makes us feel good," he said, but is not a prevention strategy.
Robert W. Block, a physician representing 60,000 members of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke of the long-term health effects of abuse: increased risk of suicide, alcoholism, depression, unintended pregnancy, heart disease, obesity, and other ills.
Mikulski asked the experts if universal mandatory reporting had a deterrent effect because abusers fear detection.
Block, who is from Oklahoma, where all adults already are required to report, said: "It is not a primary deterrent. But it is important" in helping catch serial abusers.
Eighteen other states - including Delaware but not Pennsylvania or New Jersey - have such laws. But the states differ on whether the person reporting the abuse has to have witnessed it.
After the hearing, Casey said, the subcommittee will continue fact-finding when Congress resumes sessions after the holiday recess.
He said he would ask the Department of Health and Human Services to study data from the 18 states with universal mandated reporting to evaluate what impact the policy has on preventing child sex abuse.