Community Columnist: Statutes of Limitations Don't Help Victims

By Lisa Bennett
Lincoln Journal Star [Nebraska]
November 25, 2006

Earlier this month, a U.S. district judge dismissed the last of five sexual abuse lawsuits against Omaha's Boys Town. Attorney Patrick Noaker told the court that his client, Lance Rivers, was uncommunicative in an Arizona psychiatric ward. As a result, Noaker said, he was unable to further prosecute the lawsuit.

In another courtroom 10 months ago, a Douglas County District judge dismissed the suit of Todd Rivers, Lance Rivers' brother. Todd Rivers had argued that repressed memories of abuse suffered at the hands of a priest and a teacher in the 1980s prevented him from taking earlier action. The court didn't agree and said that Todd Rivers' lawsuit exceeded the Nebraska statue of limitations on child sexual assault.

The case of another Boys Town alleged victim, James Duffy, also was dismissed because the statute had expired.

Neither Duffy nor Todd Rivers will ever have his day in court. But the odds of seeing justice served look better for the next generation of abuse victims. Thanks to Nebraska lawmakers, the statute of limitations on child sexual assault no longer exists. In 2004, the Nebraska Legislature unanimously passed LB943.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Nancy Thompson, issued a press release on April 15, 2004. "The provisions of LB943 will help enhance public safety by providing law enforcement and our judicial system with new tools to fight criminal offenses against children. Children who have been sexually abused have many issues that victims of other crimes do not have, and the passage of LB943 will allow the victims of sexual abuse the opportunity to report these crimes when they are ready to confront their offender. It will also give prosecutors the opportunity to prosecute sexual offenders and to keep them from continuing sexual offenses against children."

The concept of statute of limitations is nothing new. More than 500 years ago, the English Parliament approved legislation limiting time frames allowed to file suits. The U.S. justice system adopted the doctrine. The rationale is that, over time, witnesses die or their memories fade. Evidence is lost or compromised. And law-enforcement entities simply do not have the resources to handle larger case backlogs than already exist.

Statutes of limitations vary from state to state. Typically there are no statutes for so-called "horrific" crimes such as treason, murder, arson and forgery, as is the case in Nebraska.

Although not retroactive to crimes that occurred before its passage, LB943 eliminates the previous statute (seven years from the date the crime is committed or seven years after the victims 16th birthday, whichever is later) on sexual assault of a child and when the victim is under 16, for first-, second- and third-degree child sexual assault.

LB943 also contains several other provisions, including making it a criminal offense to use a computer to entice a child.

The lineup of LB943 proponents speaking at the legislative hearings included representatives from the Nebraska Commission on the Status of Women, Child Advocacy Center, Voices for Children, Parents United, Parents United of the Midlands and Lutheran Family Services. Several child-abuse victims also testified in favor of the bill's passage.

Nebraska isn't alone in stepping up to protect children from sexual predators. In recent years, other state legislatures have made changes to child sexual abuse and assault statutes. Massachusetts has been a hotbed of activism since a Boston Globe investigation several years ago revealed the massive clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. In September, the Massachusetts state legislature extended the child sexual abuse statute of limitations from the previous 15 years to 27 years. Victims would be able to report crimes up until the age of 43. If DNA evidence exists that corroborates a victim's allegation, that statute is waived.

Massachusetts House of Representatives Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi told the Boston Globe, "We felt we needed to protect children, and we needed to strengthen our laws to make sure that sexual predators are brought to justice and that there is an opportunity for prosecution in these cases. We've seen people who were molested when they were children, and some people virtually were getting away with it because their statute of limitations had run (out) and we weren't able to prosecute."

Lisa Bennett is married to Steve and lives in Seward. She is a freelance writer, photographer and journalist.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.