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Law limitations may protect child abusers in U.S.

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - High-profile accusations of child sex abuse in the United States have refocused attention on laws that are meant to protect the rights of the accused but in fact can help pedophiles escape prosecution.

Experts say statutes of limitation that prevent criminal charges being brought after a certain number of years may need to be reconsidered in the sex abuse of children because victims typically need years before they are able to come forward.

The latest case in the spotlight involves an assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University in the New York state. The coach, Bernie Fine, has declared his innocence and he was cleared in a university investigation in 2005.

Like the child sex abuse scandal rocking Penn State University football, the Syracuse accusation involves the coach of a highly profitable sports program in a university town with a fervent fan base. By extension, the cases have rattled college sports programs across the country.

Syracuse police on Thursday reopened an investigation into Fine when a second accuser came forward.

The first accuser, Bobby Davis, now 39, first reported in 2003 that Fine fondled him "hundreds of times" from when he was 11 until he was 27, telling the television network ESPN that police dropped his case because the statute of limitations had expired.

But in the wake of the Penn State scandal, Davis's stepbrother Mike Lange, 45, came forward in an interview with ESPN to say Fine fondled him 15 to 20 times when he was a boy.

The TV interviews led police to bring both accusers in for questioning on Thursday. Fine was placed on administrative leave by the university pending the investigation.

"Simply put, these allegations are patently false in every aspect," Fine said in a statement on Friday. "I am confident that, as in the past, a review of these allegations will be discredited and restore my reputation."

The more serious accusation of first-degree abuse, which involves penetration or oral contact, carries no limitation but the acts described by Davis and Lange would constitute second-degree sexual abuse and must be prosecuted within five years of the most recent act under New York state law.

Several proposed laws in the state legislature would extend that limit, including one sponsored by Assemblyman Gary Pretlow that would put it at 30 years.

The Syracuse incident will "absolutely" reinvigorate his push to get the bill passed, Pretlow said from the state capital Albany.

"If something is close to the Albany mindset, as Syracuse is, then it will resonate much more," Pretlow said.

"Many times, people are too embarrassed to come forward because of the way society treats victims of sexual attacks. If people do come forward later in life, the person who did it should be punished."

Robert Shoop, a Kansas State University expert on the sexual abuse of children, advocates for a law that would eliminate statutes of limitation in all states.

"The down side of eliminating a statute of limitations is that the further you get from the event the more difficult it is for both sides to make their case. However, by eliminating a person's right to bring a case forward I think you're doing more harm than the risk to the defendant," Shoop said.

"There's always a lot of discussion in the midst of a hot issue like this one. We'll see six months from now if those conversations are still going on."

Even if the statute of limitations prevents a prosecution, investigators might want to interview the accusers in case there might be other, younger victims whose cases are still valid, said attorney Matthew Galluzzo, a former Manhattan prosecutor of sex crimes who is now in private practice.

But he cautioned against overreacting to the cases in the news because of the risk that fabricators might "smell deep pockets at the university."

"Right now it would be very easy for some kid who was at Penn State to make up some stories and get a big settlement," Galluzzo said. "There's definitely a risk for that and this is definitely why we have a statute of limitations."

(Additional reporting by Dan Wiessner in Albany; Editing by Mark Egan and John O'Callaghan)

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