Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
May 27, 2021
By Laura Schulte
A proposed bill that would allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse to hold their abuser accountable is facing an uncertain future in the state Legislature.
The Child Victims Act would allow survivors to pursue civil action against their abuser or the organization that employed the person, removing the current limitation that allows a person to pursue action only until they turn 35 years old. The bill, survivors say, would allow them to finally feel a sense of justice, share their stories as adults and hopefully prevent future crimes from taking place.
The bill has been proposed time and again before the Legislature, only to stall in committee. But now that an investigation into sexual abuse by religious leaders has been opened by the state Department of Justice, survivors and their advocates are once again hopeful.
Here’s what you need to know about the potential legislation:
What is the Child Victims Act?
The bill would allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse to pursue civil action against their abuser or the organization that employed the abuser without a time limit to bring the claim to police or the courts. The legislation would not change the amount of time a survivor has to seek criminal action against an abuser.
What is the statute of limitations, and why do people want to change it?
A statute of limitations is the maximum amount of time a person has to initiate legal proceedings after an alleged offense.
In Wisconsin, the criminal statute of limitations for victims of child sexual assault expires at age 45, and the civil statute of limitations ends at age 35.
On average, most survivors of childhood sexual abuse begin to remember and process the abuse they endured around age 52 — years after the statutes of limitation close.
How long have advocates and survivors been pushing for the act?
The legislation was first introduced in 2003. It was again revisited in 2008, 2009 and 2010, but the bill failed to get a floor vote. In 2019, the bill failed to even get a public hearing.
Why do supporters say the legislation is needed?
Survivors argue that it will allow them to take back control of their lives and get justice for the abuse and the resulting trauma they endured. Experts also say that enacting the bill could open the door to learning about previously unknown abuse — and abusers.
Abuse survivors say that even with reforms, the Catholic Church and other organizations aren’t doing enough to acknowledge the pain and sorrow clergy members and other employees caused, and what their victims have to do to cope.
Who’s against it, and why don’t they support the act?
The Catholic Church is one of the most prominent organizations pushing back against the bill. In the past, the Catholic Conference and the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools have advocated against the bills.
These organizations say that the legislation has the potential to bleed institutions dry having to pay settlements, and that it unfairly targets the Catholic Church.
Has the legislation been reintroduced this year?
Legislators have not formally introduced the Child Victims Act this year, but Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, said she’s working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to re-introduce the measure.
Gov. Tony Evers has signaled he would likely sign the bill if it reached his desk.
Would legislation like this increase false allegations of sexual abuse?
Advocates say the level of questioning and possible public scrutiny that accompany sexual abuse allegations are barriers for those who would make false claims.
According to ChildUSA, a think tank dedicated to preventing child abuse, there have been no cases involving false claims in the courts in states that have passed similar legislation. Proponents of the bill said the specter of false claims shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing the bill.
Opponents also have contended that people could make false accusations in search of money, but abuse survivors have rejected that. While money could help to pay for therapy or medications, the most important outcome of this legislation would be the ability to hold abusers and the organizations that sheltered them accountable.
How do I weigh in on the Child Victims Act?
You may contact your representatives in the state Assembly or state Senate to let them know your opinion on the pending bill. You can find your elected officials online through My Vote Wisconsin, or myvote.wi.gov.
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.