The sweeping legal reforms recommended for Pennsylvania's child-abuse laws this week would go a long way toward building a better early-warning defense against predators like convicted molester Jerry Sandusky - even as long-ago abuse victims still would have to wait for justice.
Without question, the reforms would raise awareness about child abuse to unprecedented levels through a combined strategy of expanding the pool of those required to report allegations, as well as imposing tougher penalties for failing to speak up.
Along with devoting greater resources to the state's child-abuse hotline, the state Task Force on Child Protection proposes a smart shift toward the use of more so-called multidisciplinary teams to probe abuse claims - with investigators drawn from the ranks of both police and social-work specialists.
As expected, the panel's heavy focus on updating reporting mandates comes in the wake of allegations of a cover-up of Sandusky's crimes by officials at Pennsylvania State University. The 68-year-old Sandusky, a former assistant to football coaching legend Joe Paterno, was shielded because top school officials failed to alert authorities to reports that Sandusky assaulted his young victims on campus.
Against that backdrop, the proposed legal reforms would send a clear signal to other organizations entrusted with children - be it in schools, church parishes, or youth groups - that their highest obligation is to safeguard the young, rather than protect any institution's reputation.
The early positive reaction to the report from child-protection experts is an indication that the task force launched in January by Gov. Corbett and state legislative leaders has offered what could be a workable blueprint for reforms that safeguard children.
The only unknown is whether the bleak outlook for increased funding for any government initiative will improve under Harrisburg's prevailing no-tax-increase ideology. Yet, protecting children certainly should be a high priority.
The panel's chair, Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, said his charge to the group was to "be bold ... but also realistic." And in terms of protecting future abuse victims, the reforms may be bold enough.
But for earlier victims, the panel unfortunately offers no lifeline. While acknowledging that the task force, in part, owed its existence to the child-abuse scandal still roiling the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, its report dismissed in a few sentences the best means of exposing predator priests and their enablers in the church hierarchy.
That legal tactic would be to allow victims whose abusers' crimes fall outside statute limitations to sue in civil court, as done in Delaware, California, and Hawaii. Even though the task force said so-called civil-window measures face practical and constitutional issues, similar laws are being considered in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York.