By Asher Lipner (Philadelphia Inquirer)
November 8, 2011
Penn State officials' alleged failure to report sexual abuse of children, along with revelations that the purported abuse went on for 15 years, highlights the need for stricter laws protecting Pennsylvania children.
Studies show that one in four girls and one in six boys in this country are sexually abused in some way by the time they reach the age of 18. But authorities' efforts to identify and incarcerate sexual predators are hampered by unfair and outdated statutes of limitations, which impose arbitrary time limits on legal prosecution and civil action.
Psychological studies have shown that children who are molested are often unaware of the full repercussions until they grow up and experience a range of emotional difficulties. Furthermore, even those who are painfully aware of the damage they've suffered are often hampered by shame, confusion, and fear, which can prevent them from coming forward and naming their attackers for years.
Statute-of-limitations reform, which is currently under consideration in the Pennsylvania legislature, would help more adult victims pursue justice and expose molesters. It would also give adult victims time to sue institutions that were negligent and sometimes even complicit in the endangerment of children, as is being alleged in the case of some Penn State officials.
Aside from enabling more survivors of childhood sexual assault to get justice and heal, such reforms have exposed pedophiles who presented continuing threats to children in Delaware, California, and other states that have put them into effect. Statute-of-limitations reform has proven to be one of the best ways to identify serial predators who have otherwise escaped punishment.
The Catholic Church, which is also facing allegations that it protected predators instead of children in Philadelphia and elsewhere, strongly opposes this legislation as being unfair to religious groups. That's hogwash. Just as the scourge of child sexual abuse does not discriminate on religious, ethnic, or socio-economic grounds, laws that give victims more time to have their day in court will expose molesters and their protectors of all persuasions, whether they are priests, rabbis, or football coaches.
People of good faith - no matter what their faith may be - need to insist that there be no more tolerance for cover-ups that put children at risk. Pedophiles need to be warned that keeping their victims quiet with threats and intimidation, even if they successfully do so for years, will be to no avail - that they will not get away with it. And institutions, both religious and secular, must understand that it is unacceptable to place prestige and public relations above the safety of vulnerable children.
Finally, legislators must be made aware that their constituents care more about their children's safety than about the political influence of universities, churches, and other institutions - and that they, too, will be held accountable through the ballot box if they play politics with children's lives.