New legislation in Arkansas and Missouri aims to expand statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

February 12, 2024

By Mallory Challis

Last week, lawmakers in Arkansas and Missouri presented new legislation aiming to expand and eliminate the statute of limitations in childhood sexual abuse cases.

Passed in 2021 in Arkansas, the Justice for Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act temporarily changed the Arkansas statute of limitations for “vulnerable victims” (those who were minors, disabled or otherwise considered “vulnerable” at the time of abuse) wishing to seek justice for crimes committed against them. The act gave survivors, for whom the statute of limitations had already expired, a two-year window to come forward with cases against “any party who committed sexual abuse” or whose “tortious acts” led to the abuse.

The last day of this window was set to be Jan. 31, 2024.

A Feb. 6 news conference announced details of the renewal of this act, sponsored by Sen. David Wallace (R) and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R), which provides a new two-year “lookback window” that will end on Jan. 31, 2026. This renewal aims to address how the “psychological damage done by childhood sexual abuse often makes it difficult for victims to come forward well into adulthood.”

In addition to this “lookback window,” the legislation eliminates the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors altogether. Under the previous statute of limitations, Arkansas survivors had until age 55 to come forward with civil claims against their abusers. The updated legislation provides survivors the opportunity to obtain justice when they are ready to come forward, regardless of how long it takes.

William Stevens, who was sexually abused at age 10 during his time as a Boy Scout, told ABC he was pleased with the new legislation, which passed unanimously.

Like many victims of childhood sexual abuse who do not disclose their experiences until the average age of 52, Stevens was not ready to come forward about his experience for decades. He finally sought justice at age 49.

Coming forward was “one of the most important things” he’s ever done, Stevens said, explaining this legislation will allow more people to tell their stories, too.

A day after this major legislative change was announced in Arkansas, the Missouri House of Representatives considered HB 1617, sponsored by Rep. Brian Seitz (R), which seeks to increase the current statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse victims by 10 years.

Currently, Missouri survivors of childhood sexual abuse have until age 31 to bring civil action against any perpetrator of sexual violence or anyone who engaged in tortious acts leading to their abuse. If this bill passes, survivors will have until age 41.

The current bill is similar to HB 367, which aimed to increase the age limitation for survivors seeking legal action to age 55. However, the legislation died in the Missouri Senate in May last year despite receiving unanimous, bipartisan votes in its favor.

On Wednesday, Seitz re-introduced HB 1617 as an updated version of the failed HB 367 to Missouri state representatives, reminding his peers, “the average time of reporting childhood sexual abuse, especially among males, is 52.” Seitz also explained what seems to be stopping the bill from being passed: Money.

Seitz also explained what seems to be stopping the bill from being passed: Money.

“Powerful lobbies are afraid of payout,” he stated frankly. Seitz told his peers that, while the bill would inevitably require lobbyists to pay large sums of money in the form of damages to survivors who would now be able to come forward against them in civil claims, it is worth it. “This is not about money,” he said. “This is about the now adult children who were sexually abused.”

Reflecting on the current statute of limitations, Seitz said existing law re-victimizes survivors who already were abused by preventing them from seeking justice, and this bill is an attempt to correct that by offering them an opportunity to come forward.

Several witnesses, some from out of state, shared their stories in person and by letter.

Among the witnesses was Chris O’Leary, who testified he was sexually abused in the Catholic Church by a priest, but when he disclosed his experience to his bishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan (the current Archbishop of New York), he was told it was “impossible that anything could have happened,” despite allegations from at least five other victims of the same perpetrator.

O’Leary also testified that U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley (R) and Eric Schmitt (R) were “utterly uninterested in what (he) had to say” about his experiences of childhood sexual abuse, which he shared with them on multiple occasions in 2018 and 2019, attempting to aid in an investigation on sexual abuse in the St. Louis Archdiocese.

Other witnesses included survivors of childhood sexual abuse at Kanakuk Kamps, as well as family members.

Elizabeth Phillips of Dallas spoke on behalf of her brother, Trey Carlock, who died by suicide due to the lasting effects of PTSD from his experience of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of “Kanakuk executive and super-predator Pete Newman.” She explained, “Missouri’s draconian statute of limitations” exacerbated these affects for Trey and re-traumatized him by forcing him to go through the legal process before he was psychologically and emotionally prepared to.

This served as a second form of abuse, Phillips said, and led him to experience extreme psychological and emotional repercussions, ultimately leading to his death by suicide.

Phillips also referenced the timely passing of Arkansas’ new legislation, calling upon house members to support Seitz’s proposal.

Logan Yandell of Hendersonville, Tenn., childhood sexual abuse survivor and plaintiff in a current fraud case against Kanakuk Heritage Inc. and other relevant entities, submitted a written testimony advocating “for those silenced by the statute of limitations” in Missouri.

His current lawsuit claims Kanakuk Heritage Inc. and relevant leadership personnel committed fraud by failing to acknowledge the full extent of childhood sexual abuse committed by his perpetrator, Pete Newman, at the institution for years prior to Yandell’s arrival at camp. Had the Yandell family known about the extensive abuse, they would have chosen not to sign non-disclosure agreements about the abuse or agree to a settlement.

In his statement, he said, “This legislation is not just a change in the legal code; it represents a fundamental shift toward justice and healing for survivors.” Although Yandell has made his current claim under the existing Missouri statute of limitations, he stands “in solidarity with those … outside the reach of justice due to time-bound legal barriers.”

Yandell said HB 1617, if it passes, will validate survivors by providing legal affirmation that “Missouri values the dignity and rights” of everyone affected by childhood sexual abuse.

The Missouri bill is expected to be approved by the house again this year, with continued unanimous and bipartisan support, but it is possible senate infighting could prohibit it from fully passing.