Wednesday May 15, 2013

I grew up in State College, Pa., home of Penn State University and its fabled football program. In high school I walked the halls and attended classes with the children of Penn State football royalty: A couple of Paternos, some Sanduskys. We were the Little Lions, a play on the college mascot the Nittany Lion.

In 2011 when it came to light that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had been sexually abusing boys for a number of years, I simply didn’t believe it. It seems that as I wrapped up my journalism degree at Penn State, children were being irrevocably harmed by a predator whose face we’d all seen on the sidelines at Beaver Stadium for years.

Later, as I read the 23-page grand jury report about the alleged abuse, my heart fell and my stomach turned. There were too many victims for these allegations not to have some truth to them. I read that fellow State High alum Mike McQueary had witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a football building in 2002. I felt physically sick. McQueary reportedly followed the chain of command, and within the scope of the law reported what he saw to his superior, Penn State Football Coach Joe Paterno.

Nine years passed before it all came to light. More years, the report would reveal, of more boys getting abused.

Time is of the essence in reporting such crimes in any state -- more so in Vermont, legally, than in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania actually has a relatively lenient age limit for filing child sex abuse charges -- 30 for civil cases and 50 for criminal cases. In Vermont, current law only allows for prosecution of sexual assault, lewd and lascivious conduct, sexual exploitation of a minor within 10 years after it is reported or until a child turns 24.

Thanks in part to Sandusky’s highly-publicized trial, sexual crimes committed against a child in Vermont will now have a 40-year statute of limitations.

The limits exist for good reason -- because after many years have passed it can be difficult to find evidence of a crime and a witness’ memory can fade. However, sexual abuse of a child is a crime that bears special consideration.

A June 11, 2012 New York Times editorial on the subject said it well: "We can’t expect an 11-year-old boy to report what was done to him quickly, or even before he turns 23, especially if he has to reckon with a powerful institution -- like Penn State, or the Roman Catholic Church -- with an interest in covering up possible crimes."

The Vermont Legislature agreed Tuesday to extend the statute of limitations on crimes committed against children after a local prosecutor, Bennington County Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Christina Rainville, sought changes following the Sandusky’s trial. Rainville told The Banner that the Sandusky case was a "watershed moment" for her and led her to seek a change in state law. She approached Bennington County Democratic Sen. Dick Sears to seek an extended limit. Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to sign the legislation into law in short order. The law will take effect immediately, which is a good thing for children in the state of Vermont.

If Sandusky’s abuses -- alleged to have taken place between 1994 and 2009 -- had happened in Vermont, Rainville noted that only six of the eight victims in that case would not have been able to bring charges because of the time limitations.

Per Wikipedia, in 2011, following a two-year grand jury investigation, Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over the aforementioned 15-year period. Last June he was found guilty of 45 of the charges and was sentenced to at least 30 years in a state prison in Pennsylvania.

I’ve noticed that my hometown isn’t referred to by its nickname -- Happy Valley -- as often anymore. The wounds over Sandusky’s crimes, Joe Paterno’s subsequent investigation and death, the NCAA sanctions on the football team and the way the university handled the situation are still fresh and raw.

For Sandusky’s victims, it will never again be Happy Valley.

It is the child victims of sexual abuse that deserve the most fair and compassionate outcome our justice system can give them.

In Vermont, extra time is a step forward.

~Michelle Karas