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Another Voice: Statutes of limitations are unfair to victims of childhood sex abuse

By Rebecca Stevens

Child Advocacy Centers are the nation's local care centers for child victims of abuse. The work we do is to help provide children with healing, justice and trust at what's often the toughest time in a child's life.

A recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania named 300 priests and presented evidence of their alleged sexual abuse of children in their congregations. This abuse mirrors earlier institutional abuse episodes in Boston, Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, and in many ways dwarfs them. More than 1,000 children were found to be victimized over 70 years in this report, and I know as well as anyone who serves abused children that, because they are so reluctant to disclose, the true number is likely much larger.

Another tragedy is the fact that, for many of these adult victims, there will be no justice. Existing statutes of limitations mean that after a certain defined period of time, the state cannot pursue criminal cases against their abusers, or that plaintiffs cannot seek civil damages. The shape of the change we hope to see everywhere is an end to criminal and civil statutes of limitations. New York, Pennsylvania and a handful of other states have kept statutes of limitations for allegations of child sexual abuse on the books long after many states have eliminated them.

We know that for many children and the adults they become, the trauma of child sexual abuse is so painful that it may take years for them to come forward. Whenever a victim steps up to share the crime committed against them, they should be able to seek justice and healing. And beyond seeing an individual offender held accountable through a criminal case, civil lawsuits against institutions are likewise important.

Civil suits are not just about compensating victims — although it is true that without appropriate interventions like the services our agency provides to child victims, the lifetime cost of suffering the abuse of trauma can be substantial in terms of lost wages, health-care cost and even shorter lifespans. Allowing these lawsuits to move forward is important for a far more critical reason: While a criminal conviction can protect children by removing the abuser from the community, a civil action may be the only way to make the institution act to prevent abuse from happening again. Make it costly for the church, the school, or the university to fail to prevent abuse and suddenly it begins to take abuse seriously.

While it's regrettable that institutions so often concern themselves with protecting their own financial position and reputation more than protecting victims, state lawmakers have the final say on how long institutions can be held liable for things that happen on their watch.

Rebecca Stevens is director of the Child Advocacy Center in Buffalo.

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