Lying vs. Reporting Child Abuse


Joe Palazzolo is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. On November 8, 2011 he reported on the legal issues related to the Penn State scandal. In his article, “Child-Abuse Reporting Law is Challenge to Prosecutors” he states:

Some observers wonder why lying to a grand jury about knowledge of child-abuse allegations carries a stiffer punishment than failing to report them in the first place.

This is, to some extent, a parallel issue to why we prioritize treatment over prevention. If there is any doubt that we do, read chapter 1 of Paul Menzel’s and my recently published text, Prevention vs. Treatment: What’s the Right Balance? (Oxford University Press, 2011).

To answer Palazzolo’s quandary, in essence we consider breaching trust in testimony more harmful to society than preventing harm to children. The first preserves the integrity of our society. The second should preserve the integrity of individuals. Sometimes we prioritize one over the other, sometimes not.

Note that this is an explanation of how society has made legislation, not a justification. Most legislation is made linearly, not comparatively. Nobody sat down and said, “Is child abuse more or less important than lying?” The juxtaposition of the two occurs now because of the peculiar circumstances and conditions of the Penn State case. Is it the right balance? Will the Pennsylvania legislature see this juxtaposition and take action to either reduce penalties for perjury, or increase penalties for failing to report child abuse? Only those in Pennsylvania who vote and could put pressure on their legislatures will determine that question. It would be interesting to know, however, if the same relative penalties exist in most other states. Any lawyers out there who can research the questions?

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