It isn’t easy for prosecutors to explain why child victims of sexual abuse sometimes don’t report the crime for months or even years.
Some victims wait for years after the abuse ends before finally revealing to a family member or authority figure what happened.
Now for the first time in more than 20 years, Pennsylvania courts will allow psychological experts to explain this phenomenon and why it happens.
A new state law, which was written in response to the multiple cases of abuse by ex-Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, has stood up to a challenge before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The court’s decision in the Jose Luis Olivo case of Berks County means experts can now provide context to jurors for why a child may be reluctant to report sexual abuse.
“There are a lot of factors that go into it,” said Northampton County Assistant District Attorney Anthony Casola. “If it’s a family member, they could love their family member but hate what’s happening to them. The person could be the only one providing care, attention and affection they’re not getting anywhere else. It could be that their family and friends are threatened. There are a lot of different reasons for a delayed report.”
Gerhart, 49, is accused of raping two children at a home in Upper Mount Bethel Township between 2003 and 2011. The children, a male and a female, were between the ages of five and 11 when the alleged crimes occurred, according to court records. Gerhart faces 12 charges.
Casola plans to call psychologist Veronique Valliere to testify about delayed disclosure of abuse and how children can be groomed to become victims.
She is not permitted to testify about the specific victims in this case, but generally about how children’s behavior and decisions can be molded by a perpetrator.
Expert testimony about child sexual abuse had been excluded from trials since the 1992 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in favor of sex offender Neil F. Dunkle. The court determined that testimony about Child Sexual Abuse Syndrome invited speculation more than it clarified a child victim’s behavior.
The court ruled delays and omissions in reporting abuse were “easily understood by lay people and did not require expert analysis.”
But that precedent has been trumped by the latest court ruling, which found that the expert testimony will likely help jurors more than it will confuse them.
Justice J. Michael Eakin was the lone dissenter and argued that allowing experts to testify opens the door to multiple experts testifying for the prosecution and defense. He felt jurors should listen to the facts of the crime from the witnesses and make a decision on that testimony alone.
Casola said Northampton County prosecutors will decide whether to call sexual abuse experts on a case-by-case basis.
If it’s an effective tool, Northampton County will implement it, he said.
“Our goal at the end of the day is to provide assistance to these young victims,” Casola said. “Any way we can do that, we’re going to pursue if we think it can help.”