New York needs longer statutes of limitations on child sex crimes

Sunday Gazette

Sunday June 29, 2014

Tim just wants justice, any way he can get it.

He called the paper the other day looking for help.

He said he’d been sexually abused by his stepfather between about the ages of 8 and 12, and he wanted his story to come out. He’s about 40 now, so it’s been about 30 years since the abuse occurred. But the pain is still deep.

He begged for a story. But newspapers are often very reluctant to print such accounts because they’re difficult to verify and because they would be opening themselves up to a libel lawsuits should the allegations turn out to be false.

He said repeatedly that if we didn’t believe him, he’d take a lie-detector test. He’d make his stepfather and his mother and his brother take lie-detector tests as well.

It wasn’t a case of whether we believed him or not. A newspaper is not a law enforcement agency that can administer such tests. It would need corroboration, a criminal charge or a court decision or something from the police.

If only, he said, the statute of limitations on his case hadn’t expired, he would be able to get his story to the public and perhaps get some justice for what he suffered.

If there’s anything you can do, he said, anything, it would be much appreciated.

“God bless you,” he said as he hung up.

It happens more often than one might think, a victim abused decades earlier coming forward in late-middle age to tell of their abuse. But by then, it’s too late for legal action.

Despite numerous such cases, and despite the publicity surrounding the experiences of sex abuse victims in the Catholic Church, Penn State University and other institutions, New York still has among the shortest statutes of limitations for sex crimes in the country. Some states have eliminated or are in the process of eliminating limits on child sex crimes altogether, recognizing that it often takes many years for victims to muster the courage or strength to come forward. New York, advocates say, still lags far behind.

Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey of Queens has been fighting to get the limits changed for the past several years. This year, she sponsored the Child Victims Act of New York. The bill, which has been passed by the Democrat-controlled Assembly four times in the past eight years but never has never gotten through the Senate, would eliminate criminal and civil statute of limitations for certain sex offenses (such as incest) committed against a child younger than 18.

The bill also includes an unusual provision for those cases in which the statute of limitations has already expired. It would suspend the civil statute of limitations for one year after passage of the law in all applicable cases. That would allow older victims such as Tim to have their stories heard in civil court. California, Hawaii, Delaware and Minnesota are among the states that have adopted the window, according to a June 4 article in The Wall Street Journal.

Opponents of extended or unlimited statutes of limitations argue that as cases grow old, they become more difficult to prove, especially after decades. Perpetrators and witnesses forget things. They die. Evidence disappears, if there ever was any. And some institutions have argued that opening that door would allow people to tarnish their reputations without being able to produce irrefutable proof.

But we’ve all heard stories of so-called “cold cases” being solved many years after they’ve been committed, thanks to advances in evidence technology and the perseverance of detectives and victims.

Child victims of sex crimes at least deserve a chance to make a case.

Unfortunately, the state Legislature, as it has in the past, went home for the summer without taking action on the statute of limitations, leaving child abuse victims once again trapped between their pain and the arbitrary limits of the law.

Perhaps when they return to session, they’ll reconsider and finally do something.

Among the most heinous crimes are those in which the victims are children.

Why should there be a limit on justice for them?

Why should there be a limit on justice for Tim?

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