Prosecuting Sex Offenders Presents Challenges, Lawyers Say
Maryland law differentiates between child abuse and sex offenses.
This is the second article in a three-part Patch series focusing on Maryland leaders who are working to prevent child abuse.
The Penn State sex abuse scandal, which has continued to unfold over the past two weeks, has prompted a national conversation about protecting America’s children from predatory adults.
Lisae Jordan, an attorney for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she is hopeful that the dialogue will sustain itself, even after the case stops making headlines.
"People are absolutely talking about it," Jordan said. "Unfortunately there are too many child sex abuse cases. ... I do hope that it's something that stimulates conversation about that issue."
Former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged on Nov. 4 with sexually abusing several boys since the mid-90s. Jordan said coaches like Sandusky can hold powerful sway over their victims and, when charged, should be prosecuted aggressively as possible.
The problem, she said, is that Maryland's current laws aren't strong enough.
"Maryland has inadequate laws to address child sex abuse when it's committed by people in authority," she said. "The law fails to recognize that coaches ... like Sandusky always have that authority over the adolescents and the children that they're working with 24/7. It's unfortunate that our law differentiates between when the child is in his care and when the child is not in his care."
Under current state law, an adult can be charged with felony child abuse if the alleged act took place during a time when the child was committed to that adult's permanent or temporary care. For example, a football coach who rapes a child on his football team during practice, could be charged with felony child abuse. If the rape happened outside of a practice or a team meeting, that charge would not apply.
Adults who abuse or rape minor victims unknown to them, or victims who have not been placed in their permanent or temporary care, cannot be charged with child abuse. In these cases, the predators commit a felony sexual offense, a different charge than felony child abuse.
But Paul Kemp, a Rockville-based defense attorney, explained the charges are not mutually exclusive.
"This is not an either/or situation," Kemp said, explaining an adult could be charged with felony child abuse and felony sexual offense.
In Maryland, the maximum sentence for first-degree child abuse is 25 years. The maximum sentence for a first-degree felony sex offense is life in prison.
Jordan conceded the law is complicated. "It shouldn't be that complicated to charge people in authority," she said.
But prosecuting child sex offenders is difficult no matter the jurisdiction, said Kathleen Dumais, a Rockville attorney and a delegate representing part of Montgomery County in the General Assembly.
"The primary reason is that witness is the child. ... It's a question of the reliability of the witness," Dumais said. "You have to handle it very carefully."
Stacie Rumenap, the president of a national organization called Stop Child Predators, agreed that questioning a child about sexual abuse is complicated.
"A lot times they don't understand what happened to them. They don't have the words to describe what happened to them. They feel very embarrassed and ashamed. They feel threatened. That's very very common," Rumenap said. "I'd like to see a system in place where kids could come forward more easily and be helped through the process."
Although testifying against their abuser is not always the easy or the right answer, Rumenap said she believes it can be a carthartic part of the healing process for children who have been sexually abused.
"They are never the same," she said, but "Prosecuting your victimizer can be very empowering for children."
In the first part of this series, former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann said athletic programs are a dangerous environment for children.
Tomorrow, the third part discusses a new grant that will help pay to train adults to recognize and prevent abuse.