August 2, 2012

OF THE MANY horrifying details unearthed in the Freeh investigation into Penn State’s sexual abuse scandal, among the worst was the deliberate refusal of adults up and down the power gradient to report Jerry Sandusky for the child rapes he committed. On some level, that reflects the deification of Penn State’s football program under Joe Paterno, its late and now-disgraced patron saint who protected his program at the expense of Mr. Sandusky’s victims. On a national level, however, the scandal highlights the striking inadequacy of existing legislation in several states — including Maryland — to punish those who fail to report abuse.

All 50 states have so-called “mandatory reporting” statutes in child-abuse cases, but three — Wyoming, North Carolina and Maryland — don’t attach civil or criminal penalties for failing to do so. Maryland lawmakers considered a bill this year that would have strengthened the state’s mandatory-reporting law, making the failure to report abuse a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000. Unfortunately, after passing through the Senate, the bill died in the House. In the wake of the Freeh report, it’s even clearer how much of a missed opportunity this was for Maryland to take a stride in protecting its children. In the future, state legislators should waste no more time in implementing some version of this bill and the penalties it would enact.

At present, Maryland has two laws on the books that require all professionals and citizens with “reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect” to “notify the local department or the appropriate law enforcement agency.” But the lack of a penalty for failing to comply makes the measures virtually meaningless. Skeptics insist that penalties are likely to increase the number of accusations made, distracting attention and resources from real cases. In the 47 states with penalties, however, that hasn’t been an issue. An awareness of child abuse and its potential for lifelong harm is simply not enough: As with most laws, the threat of a penalty ensures that they will be followed with the seriousness they deserve.

Until more people step in and report the abuses they witness, Penn State will remain in the territory of repeatable history. As the Freeh report makes clear, it’s time for Maryland — and the two other outliers — to join with the rest of the country in doing everything in its power to prevent a recurrence of such horror.