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Pennsylvania lawmakers seek reform of child sexual abuse laws

By Mark Shade

HARRISBURG, Pa (Reuters) - Two Pennsylvania lawmakers said on Monday in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University they would propose legal reforms to give abuse victims more time to press claims in civil court.

The proposed reforms would also make witnesses of child abuse legally obligated to report it to authorities, not merely to a supervisor, state Representative Dennis O'Brien said.

"As a result of these recent events at Penn State, child abuse survivors are seeking -- and needing -- an opportunity to share their experiences and to have them validated," O'Brien said at a hearing by the House Children and Youth Committee, which he chairs.

At Penn State, former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, 67, was charged in November with multiple counts of sexually abusing eight young boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky has denied he abused the boys.

Another coach, then a graduate student, had told head coach Joe Paterno in 2002 that he had seen Sandusky having sex with a boy in an on-campus shower, according to a grand jury report. Paterno, in turn, told his boss.

The board of trustees fired Paterno and Penn State's president for failing to tell police about an allegation of abuse once they learned of it.

Under the proposed reform, victims of child abuse and child sexual abuse would have until they are 50 years old to press a civil suit, O'Brien said.

Currently victims have until they are 50 to press criminal charges but only until they are 30 years old for civil suits.

The proposed reform also would create a two-year window to revive cases in which the statute of limitations has expired, he said.

Similar reforms were adopted in Delaware in the Child Victim's Act of 2007 which eliminated the civil statute of limitations on sexual abuse and allows a two-year window to file civil suits for victims for whom the statute of limitations had passed.

Under the Delaware law, 14 men who said they were sexually assaulted as children in the 1970s and 1980s announced last week they reached a $7 million settlement with three Catholic church institutions that employed and supervised their predators.

O'Brien, a Republican, said he and Democratic committee chairman Louise Bishop would introduce the proposed changes in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Several victims of child sexual abuse who became advocates for legal reform testified before the committee, as did attorney Marci Hamilton who represents one of the alleged victims in the Sandusky case.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Johnston)

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