By Patriot-News Editorial Board
May 20, 2012
Victims of child sexual assault sometimes are not ready to confront their abuser until years after the abuse ends.
Among the difficult realities of child sexual abuse is that victims might need years, even decades, to come to terms with their abuse.
It isn't until they deal with the emotional trauma of what happened to them that they then are ready to confront their abuser.
Unfortunately, our justice system is not set up to deal with this all-too-common occurrence.
Instead, there is a statute of limitations in place that only gives victims a certain amount of time to file a complaint, either civil or criminal.
If they come forward after that time period has expired, they are barred from going forward. We have seen this most prominently with accusations against priests in the Catholic Church.
This system not only does not allow victims to seek the justice they deserve, but it also protects the sexual abuser, whose identity otherwise might never become public.
This can mean allowing them to continue abusing others.
In the case of the allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, attorneys have heard from one man who can't press charges against Sandusky because he missed the statute of limitations cutoff by a mere nine months.
Elected officials have highlighted the need to protect victims of abuse in the aftermath of the Sandusky allegations. Gov. Tom Corbett even created the Task Force on Child Protection to look at Pennsylvania's child abuse laws and propose potential changes. It is expected to give its recommendations to the governor in November.
But one important way to protect victims doesn't need to wait for the task force. We can be sure we give them the ability to have their day in court — even if it is years after the abuse ended — by changing the current statute of limitations.
Pennsylvania should create a "window" or period of time when victims who are beyond the statute of limitations can come forward and file a suit against an abuser.
Other states, such as California, Delaware and most recently, Hawaii, have enacted such laws. When California opened a one-year window, 300 cases were opened.
In the commonwealth, advocates are looking for a one-time, two-year window.
Along with that, these advocates also want to move the age limit for filing civil cases from age 30, where it currently stands, to age 50, so that it matches the age limit in criminal cases.
So far, there has been great opposition to making the changes. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference opposes the move as does the insurance industry.
Some lawmakers want to wait until the governor's task force makes its recommendations before moving forward with legislation. We strongly disagree. An earlier commission spurred by priest abuses already looked at these issues and recommended similar changes.
This bill could move in tandem with the work the task force is doing. Because a report from the group will not be handed to the governor until near year's end, no changes are likely to happen until sometime in 2013. Victims of abuse should not wait that long for justice and lawmakers must act sooner on changes.
This is an issue that impacts many families. Studies show that one in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually abused in our country. More than 90 percent are molested by someone they know. And these statistics are likely low because there is so much under-reporting of child sex crimes.
People who go through this abuse as children are a unique group of victims who deserve special consideration. The state should open the window for abuse victims as soon as possible — there is no reason to wait any longer.
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