Give survivors of sexual abuse a chance to pursue justice, no matter their birthday

Des Moines Register [Des Moines IA]

June 30, 2021

By Janet Petersen

It is time to open the window to justice to give survivors their day in court, no matter when they were born. Other states have done it.

In an episode of “This is Us,” the show depicts a scene of a woman in labor in a 1960s delivery room. The camera toggles between the woman struggling through the final minutes of labor and the wall clock above her. The baby’s birthday is about to be determined — before midnight or after. Just two minutes before midnight, the baby is born. 

Earlier in the same episode, two young brothers are sitting at a bar watching television intensely as the Selective Service draft lottery pulls the birthday of one of the young men, the baby born in the other scene. That birthday, right before midnight, got assigned a single0digit draft number, which sent the young man to Vietnam and changed the trajectory of his life.

Involuntary drafting of Americans to Vietnam wasn’t the first or last time that government has used birthdays in connection with public policies. Birthdays are used for all sorts of things: eligibility for preschool and kindergarten, learner’s permits, driver’s licenses, voting age, drinking age, marriage licenses, Social Security, Medicare, running for public office, and even legal consent to sex.

Sometimes using birthdays for public policy makes sense, but not when it comes to child sex abuse.

Attorney General Tom Miller recently released the findings of his investigation into child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, which represents just a small fraction of sexual abuse cases in Iowa.

The report revealed child sex abuse was pervasive, with more than 100 clergy “credibly accused” in the four Iowa Catholic dioceses. The institution participated in decades of cover-ups, ignoring multiple allegations, providing predators financial assistance and identity cover, and even transferring known serial sexual predators to unsuspecting communities to abuse more innocent children.

Despite Iowa’s new law eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse, these Roman Catholic priests who drugged and raped Iowa children and the dioceses that covered up the crime are immune from criminal prosecution in every case.

Iowa’s new law is still based on the victim’s birthday for Iowans who turned 33 before the bill was signed into law. It doesn’t apply to cases where the statute of limitations has already expired even with overwhelming evidence to prosecute (other than DNA evidence).

This is wrong.

No child rapist should get a free pass to live among us, continue serving Communion, and be in places where it is easy to groom and abuse more innocent children. Organizations that covered up these horrific crimes against our children shouldn’t be immune from punishment either.

It is time to open the window to justice to give survivors their day in court, no matter when they were born. Other states have done it.

The Hidden Predator Act (Senate File 32) eliminates Iowa’s archaic civil statute of limitations and opens a window of time for those who never got a chance at justice to have their day in court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a similar bill last session that got rid of both the civil and criminal statute of limitations and opened the window to justice for adult survivors. But Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver killed the bill by not bringing it up for debate on the Senate floor despite pleas from several Iowa child sex abuse survivors.

In Iowa, most survivors of child rape are barred from seeking civil damages when they turn 19 years old. It’s even worse if their predator was a school employee, therapist or counselor. Those professionals, who should be the most trusted adults in a kid’s life, are protected under a loophole that shuts off justice five years after the child leaves the school or ends therapy. Personnel at Iowa’s new, unregulated charter schools will also get this protection.

Iowans, it’s time to rally for our children. We have a chance to fix this when the Legislature convenes again — even if it is just for a day later this year to address redistricting.

States that have gotten rid of the civil statute of limitations and opened up a window to justice for adult survivors have uncovered serial predators with as many as a thousand victims. These are not people lurking in bathrooms. Most often, they are the people you know and trust with your kids — their doctors, coaches, teachers and relatives.

Telling Iowans that serial child rapists can live among us, free as birds with access to our kids, because their rape victims couldn’t press charges against them based on their birthday is nuts. But that was the law. We are stuck with the outcome unless we give these survivors a civil remedy.

Until this law passes, child abuse sexual predators will continue harming our children. It is time for the attorney general, the governor and Republican lawmakers to quit being complicit. Step up and rally behind our children.  We cannot afford to be known as a state that protects predators and the organizations that allowed these monsters to destroy people’s lives.

Janet Petersen is a Democratic state senator who serves Senate District 18 in western Des Moines.