Abuse Victims Need Time to Seek Justice

By Richard Gartner (NY Daily News)
December 18 2011

The impact of childhood sexual abuse has no statute of limitations. Why is the statute of limitations for prosecuting abusers in New York so short?

Prosecutors are not charging ex-Syracuse basketball coach and accused pedophile Bernie Fine for crimes his accusers say he perpetrated when they were boys. The problem is not lack of evidence — prosecutors publicly state they find the accusers credible. But the law says the window of accountability for raping a child is finite — and small.

New York's statute of limitations for sexual abuse is just five years after the child's 18th birthday. That means sexually abused children have only until their 23rd birthday to press charges against sexual predators.

Statutes of limitation generally have a purpose: to protect those have moved on from long-ago indiscretions. Do the state senators who have fought attempts to extend the statute of limitations really believe that pedophilia is a youthful indiscretion? To the contrary: Evidence indicates pedophiles are almost always serial offenders.

While predators continue hurting children, many young adults victimized as youths are so traumatized that coming forward by 23 isn't an option. They face intense shame and guilt and have to deal with symptoms that may include depression, anxiety, isolation, addiction and even suicidal thoughts.

Given all we know about the psychology of victims, it is simply unrealistic to expect them to seek legal redress at the beginning of the healing process.

This is complicated further by the fact that vulnerable children on the margins of their peer group are at most risk for sexual abuse by an adult outside the family. Hungry for positive attention from adults, they are easy targets for predators with well-developed radar for finding them. Abusers seem to offer children what they need and want: love, nurturance, affection, comfort and — ironically — safety.

When an adult like this betrays a child's trust, treachery is introduced into a trusting relationship. These children often grow up wary of authority because they see people in these positions as untrustworthy and undependable. Why would such a child ever go to an authority for help?

At 23, victims are thinking about how to begin their adult life, and are rarely mentally prepared to revisit the horrors of their youth. In my own practice, sexually abused men rarely come for help until at least their late 20s, but more likely later. Sometimes men well past 60 come for treatment, never having disclosed childhood abuse before.

Some say revising the statute of limitations would open the door to prosecutions based on faulty recovered memories — which would put potentially innocent people at terrible risk of being falsely accused.

Not so; people simply don't fabricate evidence of abuse out of whole cloth. There's nothing in it for them.

There have been recent attempts to lengthen the statute of limitations laws for sexual crimes against minors in New York. Assemblywoman Margaret Markey sponsors the current bill. It's been passed three times by the state Assembly but has consistently been blocked from coming to a Senate vote. Wealthy, politically powerful religious and secular institutions have a vested interest in keeping their reputations and assets intact.

The Syracuse scandals should be as shocking to our public servants as they are to the rest of us. It's an outrage that we as a society allow pedophiles to continue to victimize our children as a result of lobbying by special interest groups.

State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos has the power to bring the Markey bill to a vote. Gov. Cuomo has the power, in fact an obligation, to persuade legislators to do their job.

Richard Gartner is training and supervising analyst and founding director of the sexual abuse service at the William Alanson White Psychoanalytic Institute in New York City.