The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 30, 2013

Abuse-prevention experts gather

JOHNSTOWN — The Jerry Sandusky scandal cast a shadow over Pennsylvania last year. But Jackie Bernard, Blair County chief deputy district attorney, said the case can shed light on ways to better protect children for generations to come.

“Child abuse has always been something people didn’t want to talk about – even think about. But because of the Jerry Sandusky trial – and the strength his victims showed stepping forward – it’s a topic of discussion now,” Bernard said Tuesday at the 33rd annual Cambria County Child Abuse Prevention Workshop at Pitt-Johnstown’s Richland Township campus.

“People are more aware of child abuse,” she said. “And they’re more aware of the challenges prosecuting these cases.”

Bernard was part of an 11-member statewide task force picked last year to recommend how the state can better protect young abuse victims and properly punish those who prey on them.

In the wake of several high profile abuse scandals in the state, the timing was right, she said, referring to Sandusky and a separate, lengthy investigation into the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  

“These were (cases) where there were numerous instances of abuse ... and other people knew about it – or should have known,” Bernard said.

The state task force issued a 400-page report, urging for a culture change in how allegations are perceived, reported and handled.

Proposed changes include:

• Expanding the definition of “mandatory reporting” to require people in academic settings to alert authorities – not just supervisors – about suspected wrongdoings.

• Increasing penalties against those who don’t.

• Expanding the legal definition of what is considered child abuse.

• Increasing penalties for those who assault young children.

• Modifying the sentencing structure for those guilty of sharing graphic images or videos of child porn.

Efforts are intended to make the public  more alert to child abuse.

“People imagine a child abuser and they picture a monster,” Bernard said, observing that Sandusky’s reputation as a Penn State football coach and nonprofit founder challenged the stereotype.

“It can be anyone. A volunteer coach, a community leader, a local pastor. It can be a father, a neighbor ... or a friendly face.”

Bernard said Pennsylvania hasn’t given a significant overhaul to sex abuse guidelines and penalties since the late 1990s, but lawmakers have quickly acted on many of the task force’s recommendations, aiming to make many of them laws.

It takes a cooperative effort, one that extends beyond law enforcement to children and youth services, health care providers and numerous other groups statewide, Cambria Children & Youth administrator Betzi White said.

“We have to work hand-in-hand,” White said.

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