A D.C. City Council committee has given unanimous approval to a bill that would legalize sex between consenting children when one is not significantly older than the other.

The bill, part of a package of sweeping reforms of the city's sexual assault laws scheduled for full council action next week, would maintain criminal penalties for sex between adults and children and also for forced sex involving children.

But the measure would allow persons 12 years and older to engage in sexual intercourse as long as one partner is not more than four years older than the other. It would also remove any legal penalties for sex between consenting children under 12 as long as the children are no more than two years apart in age.

under the proposed bill, any person under 16 is legally a child. The bill also requires that consenting young partners both be 12 or older, or 11 or younger. For example, a child of 11 could not legally have sex with one aged 13.

The changes from the current law -- which makes illegal any sex with a girl under 16 -- is in line with action taken in numerous other states, where old carnal knowledge laws are being scrapped, according to supporters of the bill and an independent expert on juvenile sex laws. North Carolina, for instance, has a consent age of 12. In New York and Hawaii, it is 14; in Maryland and Virginia, 15.

"We recognize that this may be more of a matter for family training and schools and churches," said council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), author of the bill and chairman of the judiciary committee that passed the measure without opposition two weeks ago. "Teen-aged sexual activity that is consentual is not an area for criminal law."

Clarke's aide on the committee, Lorilyn Simpkins, said, "Now we have 13- and 14-year-old children who are out here doing it every day. This is to modernize it [the law] and to try to bring it to our current set of norms. These are peers, and sexual orientation is something that is going on."

The changes in the consent age make up two sections of a 14-section measure genearlly aimed at redefining the city's laws on sexual assault, including sodomy, rape and incest. In general, the bill broadens the penalties for forces sexual activity while diminishing those for sex between consenting parties.

Two members of the committee, John L. Ray (D-At-Large) and H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), said yesterday that they were unaware of the effect the measure would have on the age of consent.

"That wasn't our intent," said Crawford, who voted for the bill and said he would take another look at the legislation.

"Is that right?" said Ray, who said he supports the bill but was absent when the committee vote was taken. "I'm going to have to take a look at that."

Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At-Large), another supporter of the changes, said, "You have to make a distinction between what should be prosecutable under criminal law and what you believe is wrong from a moral point of view.

"I have a 14-year-old daughter and I certainly wouldn't want her having sex with a 15-year-old boy. But on the other hand, I don't think that the 15-year-old should be prosecuted for a crime," Kane said.

There are now 26 states that permit sex between consenting teen-agers unless there is a significant age difference, according to statistics prepared by the American Bar Association's National Legal Resource Center for Child Advocacy and Protection.

The judiciary committee held public hearings on the entire package of new sex laws last March. The D.C. Office of the Corporation Counsel, which must prosecute cases under the current carnal knowledge law, said in a report, "We are concerned, however, about the fact that this bill lowers the age of consent . . .

"The assumption that the average child of that age possesses the necessary ability to make a rational decision whether to engage in sexual activities may not be warranted."

Nan Huhn, chief of the juvenile section in the corporation counsel's office, said yesterday that her office still opposes the lowered age, even though under the present law it prosecutes only a handful of sex violation cases involving consenting teen-agers.

"We use prosecutorial discretion and good clean common sense," Huhn said. "We prosecute only when there is a big age difference" between the teen-age partners. "You can't impose your morality on the world. There are 15-year-olds, and then there are 15-year-olds. There are some young ladies who have good judgment and maturity. Then, there are others."

Other provisions of the sexual reform bill would provide criminal penalties for sexual crimes that are not specifically covered under existing law. The proposed bill would make it a crime for persons to sexually abuse those institutionalized in hospitals, juvenile detention homes or foster homes. t

The proposed law also would allow wives to press rape charges against their husbands. The proposal also removes all references to the sex of the victim from current law, which tended to be written presuming that women would be the victims of all sexual assaults.

The bill also proposes a new category of criminal activity -- first-degree sexual assault -- to replace the narrower existing laws that primarily involve rape and sodomy. The new law would cover other forms of forced sexual acts and establish a penalty of no more than 20 years in jail. rape is not punishable by up to life imprisonment.

The new measure would also establish a category of second-degree sex offenses that would include sex with persons who are either mentally deficient or incapable of resisting physically. These provisions would effectively outlaw forced sex with intoxicated persons.