Commentary: Fire Boeheim, Change Child Sex Abuse Laws

By Professor Marci A. Hamilton (syracuse.com)
December 05, 2011

It is time that Syracuse University follow the lead of Penn State and immediately terminate the contract of head basketball coach Jim Boeheim.

For what he said in defense of longtime assistant coach and alleged child molester Bernie Fine alone, which was a slap in the face to all child sexual abuse victims, he needs to go. And if it is determined that he actually did know of the alleged crimes years ago — not inconceivable given that Syracuse University conducted at least some semblance of an investigation when Bobby Davis initially brought his accusations against Fine to officials there in 2005 — he should be held legally accountable, just as Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, president Graham Spanier and others at that institution need to be.

To that end, there are two essential legal reforms that must be immediately enacted. First, reporting laws must be changed. All adults and institutions aware of child sexual abuse accusations must be required to report the abuse to the authorities, or face serious penalties. At present, New York is typical with its weak laws for mandatory reportage, mostly pertaining to health and education officials, who can be charged with a misdemeanor for failing to alert the authorities of a child sexual abuse charge. They are also subject to unspecified fines.

This is simply insufficient. Rather, there needs to be meaningful jail time — let's say five to 10 years — and real financial consequences, such as hefty five- and six-figure penalties.

Second — but certainly of no less importance — no law should prevent those victimized as children from pursuing legal remedy as adults. That means that the statutes of limitations on childhood sexual abuse must be eliminated. New York legislators have had a pending bill that would do just this. The proposed Child Victims Act would extend the statutes of limitations for childhood sex abuse by five years, so that victims will not have to file charges before they are 23 or civil claims before they are 28.

Of equal significance, the act creates a window of opportunity of one year for victims to file claims and pursue justice in court against those who caused their abuse — even if their statutes of limitations expired already. Perpetrators typically abuse time and time again and well into their elder years, so identifying one today, even if the abuse occurred 20 years ago, can make a significant and perhaps transformative difference in the lives of those abused as children. And the legislation applies to all institutions, so no one can claim it is biased against any organization or group.

California and Delaware have enacted such reform, and others, including Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, and Wisconsin, are considering the same. In California, the public learned the identities of 300 child predators.

Unfortunately, the Child Victims Act has been held hostage for the past four years due to intense lobbying from the Catholic Conference, so one may assume that the far too many legislators are kowtowing to the conference to assist it in keeping its secrets and perpetuating the cover up that has scandalized the church over the past decade. Nevertheless, now is the time for the bill to pass and be signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

To be sure, those in power who somehow permitted children to be at risk need to be seen under brighter light. The status quo is intolerable. If we want the world to be a better place for our children, we must demand accountability and legal reforms that make it happen.

Of course, it would be more than appropriate for Syracuse University to help lead the fight for reporting and statute of limitations reform. But at the very least, firing Boeheim is necessary, now.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Professor of Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York and the author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children."