By David DeKok
HARRISBURG Pa. (Reuters) - Pennsylvania is poised to close what lawmakers call a loophole in a sex abuse law it passed in the wake of a child sex scandal at Penn State University.
The bill, which lawmakers have approved and which a spokesman for Governor Tom Corbett said on Tuesday he would sign into law, would require that coaches and trainers on private teams who have sex with players under the age of 18 be charged with a third-degree felony rather than a misdemeanor.
The current law was enacted after Jerry Sandusky, once an assistant football coach at Penn State - was arrested on multiple counts of sexually abusing children he met through a charity.
Sandusky, now 70, was convicted in June 2012 of 45 criminal counts of child sex abuse and is serving 30 to 60 years in prison.
The current law covers school district coaches, but not those who work for private teams or non-profit organizations or who are independent consultants. Coaches for private teams can only be charged with corruption of a minor, a misdemeanor, for having sex with a 16- or 17-year-old member of their team.
The new bill provides for prison sentences of three and a half to seven years upon conviction. Allen Zieglar, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said Corbett “will sign the bill,” but has not yet set a date and time.
Representative Mike Vereb, a Republican and a prime sponsor of the legislation, said the bill is designed to protect children who participate in private athletic activities, such as youth soccer or Little League.
"You have to ask yourself: How can a 16- or 17-year-old child be expected to make a good decision when the person offering [sex] is a person they trust, their coach?” Vereb said.
Vereb said he was motivated by a case in his Philadelphia-area district involving William “Billy” Gordon, a private volleyball and conditioning coach. Gordon was in his late 30s when he was charged with having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl who came to him for conditioning training.
Gordon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 8 to 25 years in prison. Vereb said if the relationship had started when the girl was 16, he would have gotten a much milder sentence.
"He was months away from escaping statutory rape charges,” Vereb said.
(Editing by Edith Honan, Barbara Goldberg and Eric Walsh)