If a wife suspects her husband abuses children, does she have to tell anyone?

Liz Goodwin

ESPN has released recordings that suggest that Laurie Fine, the wife of former Syracuse University associate head basketball coach Bernie Fine, suspected that her husband was sexually abusing a ballboy for the team.

Was Laurie Fine legally obligated to tell the police about her suspicions?

No--not even if it could be proved that she was guilty of knowingly allowing sexual abuse to occur in her own home.

Individuals rarely have a legal obligation to report a crime, including child abuse, says Deborah Epstein, a law professor and director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at Georgetown University. In New York state, where Syracuse University is located,  only people in certain professions--including most medical professionals, school officials, social workers, day care workers, and some others--have a legal obligation to report child abuse. (In California, all people are obligated to report crimes against children under 14 years old.)

"I know everything that went on, you know," Laurie Fine says to Bobby Davis in 2002 on the recording. Davis and his stepbrother, both former Syracuse ballboys, have accused Bernie Fine of molesting them when they were children. A third accuser has also come forward, saying he was abused by Bernie Fine in 2002. (Laurie Fine told Syracuse's Post Standard that parts of the recordings are accurate but that they may have been edited. Bernie Fine has not been charged with a crime, and he denies the allegations.)

In the recordings, Laurie Fine appears to explain why she didn't step in to stop the alleged abuse. "If it was another girl like I told you, it would be easy to step in because you know what you're up against. ... (When) it's another guy, you can't compete with that. It's just wrong, and you were a kid. You're a man now, but you were a kid then."

To be criminally liable, Laurie Fine would have had to have participated in the alleged abuse or have tried to actively hide her husband from the law.

New York has a "spousal privilege" law, which means the spouse of an accused person cannot be compelled to testify against him or her in court in most cases. That wouldn't be an issue in Davis's case, because the alleged abuse happened in the 1980s, well beyond the federal statute of limitations of 10 years for crimes involving the sexual abuse of children.

Bobby Davis says he had a sexual relationship with Laurie Fine, which she initiated once he turned 18 years old. The Syracuse Post Standard reports that she worked from home as a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Syracuse until October 27, 2011.

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