States Need to Stop Telling Child Victims They're SOL

by Irwin Zalkin (Huffington Post)
May 26, 2009

We can all agree that protecting children from sexual predators is among the highest priorities we have as a free, civilized society. But, I am afraid on that front, there is both good news and bad news to report.

First, the bad news.

The statistics on the sexual abuse of children are heart-breaking. One in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18.

Aggravating this already horrific phenomenon is that most of these victims will take years to come to grips with the abuse, by which time they are usually left without criminal and civil recourse.

Why?

Because the governing statutes of limitations ("SOLs") typically block them from seeking a remedy. And without these avenues of recourse, predators simply move on to their next victim, causing young children tremendous physical and psychological burdens, which require long-term care. These children are not the only ones who suffer. As taxpayers, every one of us foots the bill for decades of untreated child abuse victims including costs of medical care, employment disability, and even criminal processing.

In other words, the victims -- as well as governments and their taxpayers who provide support services for them -- are left paying an additional price for these terrible crimes while the predators continue to roam the streets and schoolyards untaxed and unfettered by their deeds.

Now, the good news.

Brave abuse survivors, activists and legislators are working tirelessly to bring fairness to our judicial system as states across the country are moving to extend or lift the criminal and civil SOLs for sexual abuse. California and Delaware have already done it. New York is debating it now. Many more are sure to follow. But they need your help as these legislative initiatives are being championed in the face of a formidable combination of money, influence and intimidation brought by organizations like the Catholic Church who have a lot to lose if they are held accountable.

Organizations like the Catholic Church insist that lifting civil statutes of limitations will raise frivolous law suits bankrupting them and preventing them from carrying out charitable works. But, the lessons of California teach us otherwise: Once the statute of limitations was lifted, the courts were able to provide survivors of sexual abuse relief from -- and care for -- their afflictions based on strong evidence of wrongdoing. And, not a single church or school had to be closed as a result. In fact, one archdiocese attempted to file bankruptcy to avoid paying claims, and their petition was dismissed by the court as "disingenuous," saying: "Chapter 11 is not supposed to be a vehicle or a method to hammer down the claims of the abused."

So, having witnessed what happened in California, we know that lifting these SOLs is not a "win-lose" proposition. It is not choosing to side against the Church or some other institution. It is choosing to side with victims.

The front line of the battle over SOLs is now in Albany, New York where Assemblywoman Margaret Markey's "Child Victims' Act" ("CVA") is under debate. This bill would extend the current statute of limitations in both criminal and civil cases and allow a one year window for adult victims previously barred by the SOL to seek civil litigation against their predators and the institutions that knowingly harbored them.

Opponents of the bill offer the usual tired litany of rationales, focusing on a provision that excludes public schools (and ultimately the governments and taxpayers that fund both the schools and support services to victims) from certain types of litigation. But their arguments are as insincere as they were in California and Delaware. Ultimately, passing this bill, and others like it, is simply a question of accountability for predators, justice for victims, and fairness for the taxpaying public. The choice is clear.

So what can you do to make the justice system fair to victims of sexual abuse? Whether you live in New York or a state that has yet to introduce such a bill, send an email, write a letter or make a phone call to your state representative. Let them know you want fairness for child victims of sexual abuse by lifting the SOL.

It's a simple act that takes two or three minutes, but it could make our country and its communities a safer -- and fairer -- place.