End the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse
I hear stories about sexually abused children every day. That’s not easy, but what is harder is fighting the legislative apathy surrounding statute-of-limitations reform, the most significant legislative solution to the problem.
There is no way to effectively prosecute child sexual abuse when there is a statute of limitations on the crime. A recent study proves survivors of this crime need an average of about 21 years before they can talk about their abuse. Child sexual abuse is usually committed by someone the victim knows and trusts – a relationship that allows them to manipulate the child into years or decades of silence. The news stories about children whose cases are prosecuted are the tip of the iceberg. We don’t see the stories of 50-year-olds disclosing their abuse, because statutes of limitations block them from the courtrooms and keep their abusers on the street.
Child sexual abuse cases are often hard to prosecute, so allowing victims to sue their abusers and institutions that facilitated their abuse is important. Lawsuits grant victims a day in court. A successful suit results in documents that can block sex offenders from working with children, or from gaining custody of them. They ignite conversations within families, where half of child sexual abuse happens, which often flushes out abusers. The threat of lawsuits is a major incentive for institutions that work with children to adopt the best practices that make child sexual abuse less likely. And financial settlements, when available, are useful. The Centers for Disease Control and others have estimated the cost of surviving child abuse at $210,000 per victim. Child sexual abuse is a stressor so intense it changes the way a child’s brain, immune system, endocrine system and DNA develop, which make abuse survivors more likely to develop cancer, diabetes, and heart disease later in life, along with a host of mental illnesses. Currently taxpayers shoulder most of this burden. Transferring it to guilty parties makes sense.
The most contentious feature of the Child Victims Act and the Omnibus Child Victims Act, two similar bills that would eliminate New York’s criminal and civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, is a one-year window that would allow victims already barred from the courts to sue their abusers or institutions that facilitated their abuse. Other states have passed similar legislation, and its constitutionality has been upheld. These states have seen hundreds of old suits filed, hundreds of sex offenders exposed, and hundreds of survivors empowered. Even in civil court, defendants are innocent until proven guilty, so the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. I know survivors with written confessions, videotaped confessions, and witnesses to the abuse and records from schools or churches acknowledging the abuse, whose abusers are still above the law today.
For years, the Catholic Church has used paid lobbyists to fight this legislation. They spent more money fighting this legislation than they did fighting marriage equality, which they claim a theological objection to. The church’s perennial argument against statute of limitations reform is that it will cause them financial hardship. They fail to mention that much of the settlement money comes from the church's insurance. Nor do they mention that most of the philanthropic works the Catholic Church does are funded through state and federal dollars. The impact of statute-of-limitations reform on the church’s ability to help people is small, while its impact on child safety is huge.
Only two to three percent of child sexual abuse is committed by clergy. So in fighting this bill, the church is essentially lobbying for every sex offender to be able to escape consequences for their crimes. Their victims cannot escape consequences.
There is no other legislation that can do as much good at preventing child sexual abuse as the Child Victims Act. In fighting against this, the Catholic Church is essentially saying sex offenders have a right to mark their calendar and, on the assigned day, take a deep breath and say, “I got away with it.”
I doubt that’s a value most New Yorkers share.
Melanie Blow is the chief operating officer of the Stop Abuse Campaign.