Time Limits for Reporting Sexual Abuse Are Wrong. Scrap Them
By Andy Kopsa
April 14, 2016
After this month, victims of pedophile priests in the Catholic church will no longer be able to find justice – at least, not in Hawaii or Minnesota, two states that extended the statute of limitations (SOL) after a renewed wave of allegations came to light in 2013. This is yet another perfect example of our country’s willful ignorance about rape and sexual abuse.
Why are there SOLs in these cases at all? There shouldn’t be.
It’s already impossible in most other states for victims of rape and sexual assault within or beyond the bounds of the church to gain justice, since SOLs vary wildly from state to state but are often impossibly short. Alabama, to offer just one example, gives victims above aged 16 three years to file a criminal complaint in the case of felony sexual abuse. (Civil SOLs are comparatively longer and easier to pursue; criminal cases must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, while civil suits hinge on the lower bar of providing a preponderance of evidence.)
Some states allow cases to be filed beyond the SOL deadline if definitive DNA evidence is found. It should be noted Alabama isn’t one of them, but they aren’t alone. States have similar windows, and stratify abuse into categories like “forcible” rape or rape with the “threat of harm”. Threat of harm? Rape is itself harm.
Meanwhile, there is a staggeringly unacceptable backlog of untested rape kits in America, as well as loads of research showing that it can take years for victims to feel ready to come forward with their stories.
I had a conversation with Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law, last year about this very issue. I asked her what on earth keeps SOLs in cases of sexual assault from being expanded or abolished. Victim-blaming, essentially.
“The only argument lofted against liberalizing the statute of limitations against child sexual abuse offenders,” according to Hamilton, is that, “it will increase the likelihood of false claims.” While false claims are concerning, Hamilton notes, that argument doesn’t hold water. “There are very few false claims as an empirical matter,” she told me.
The same can be said for adult victims of rape – especially women. While there have been a couple of high-profile rape allegations in recent months that fell apart upon scrutiny – the Rolling Stone story, and the Duke Lacrosse scandal – generalizing that women lie about rape all the time is a canard that’s easily debunked. Only 2–8% of rape or sexual assault claims are false. To be crystal clear: that 2–8% comprise claims when the accuser knew for certain that the accused was innocent, and assaults are often much less clearcut.
And that’s 2-8% of reported rapes. Most go unreported. Limited SOLs and abysmal conviction rates do nothing to foster a safe environment for victims to come forward.
The revelations of rampant sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic church brought more to light than the crimes themselves. It helped the public start to understand how survivors process their abuse, and hopefully to understand the deep trauma inherent in sex crimes. Survivors of any age will come forward at different times. Not every victim is ready or even able to come forward due to threats from their abuser, severe physical and psychological trauma and numerous other factors.
We need statute of limitation reform of both criminal and civil SOLs. Expanding SOLs will not solve the rape crisis, but they can be a vital part of a societal and systemic overhaul of how we talk about rape, treat victims of rape and mete out punishment to the abusers. I have cautious optimism that there are better days ahead: Pennsylvania is trying to reopen a window for its victims, and more states are likely to follow suit.
Statute of limitation reform could be a tangible and relatively immediate start – with strong legislative leadership at the state and federal level – as part of a broader strategy to encourage reporting, promote understanding of rape in a real way, and hold rapists and pedophiles to account. Hawaii and Minnesota ending their SOL extensions goes in the wrong direction.