Marci Hamilton is a top expert in US church-state relations. She is also involved in another passionate fight — the abolishing of Statues of Limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse — laws which wind up protecting some of the most dangerous offenders.
She’ll be keeping us up to speed on important developments and decisions on Wednesdays.
A Crawford County, PA, prosecutor took the first steps toward charging a priest pedophile this week and then abruptly withdrew the charge. Why? Certainly not because of a failure of proof. The victim’s claims were credible, and the victim was very supportive of the prosecution. The reason was that the statute of limitations had run.
The prosecutor first filed the charges in light of a recent Pennsylvania law that had extended the date a survivor of child sexual abuse could file charges to age 50. The victim was under 50 and, therefore, the thought was that his criminal charges could be the basis for prosecution.
Unfortunately, the new Pennsylvania law did not and could not make it possible for him to file charges, because the statute of limitations on these crimes had expired long before the extension to age 50. And once a criminal statute of limitations runs, no amount of lawmaking will revive the claim, according to the United States Supreme Court in Stogner v. California.
So now what does this survivor do?
Well, the predator won’t be going to jail for the crimes committed against him. And, unfortunately, the victim has no civil remedy by now. While Pennsylvania also extended the civil statute of .limitations to age 50, it did not do so “retroactively.” In other words, the Pennsylvania legislature did not revive old claims, but rather only gave those whose claims had not yet expired at the time of the extension more time to file.
Many state legislatures have been considering and enacting extensions for a number of decades, and that is all to the good. Every extension seems inadequate once in place. But the extensions have not opened the dam of claims that expired under artificially short statutes of limitations. While we are doing a better job in general making it possible for our children’s generation to get to court when they are ready, we have an iceberg of claims waiting to be heard. The predators against our generation and our parents’ generation have been given immunity in the vast majority of cases. With only 10% of child sex abuse victims ever reporting the abuse to authorities, 90% of sexual abuse never makes it to the public.
As the Crawford County prosecutor learned, his hands are tied even when he has a credible victim, strong evidence, and a known perpetrator. The only option is the civil law route, and the law must be retroactive. As I argue in Justice Denied, we must enact legislation in every state to make it possible for this generation and its forebears to publicly identify and sue their perpetrators (and their enablers). Until we do, we leave our children at risk of the perpetrators who hurt so many in our generation and we fail to do justice to the more than 20% among us who were sexually abused as children.