Another View: Child Molesters, Enablers Must Face Tougher Civil Penalties

By Peter Hutchins
January 19, 2006

IN THE PAST few years I have had the privilege of representing nearly 150 victims of childhood sexual abuse. They were victims of abuse by clergy, teachers, day care workers, neighbors and family members. I have heard their stories and witnessed their pain. I have also had a chance to investigate and analyze the circumstances surrounding their abuse, including taking lengthy depositions of several of these serial offenders.

While imposing harsher criminal sentences on convicted child molesters is just and appropriate, it is debatable whether such measures will actually serve to prevent or deter sexual offenders from preying on children. The same can be said for "residential" type restrictions, i.e., prohibiting these people from living near schools.

Paraphilia, pedophilia and ephebophilia are diseases. Sex offenders are not only sick, but are "addicts," driven from within to seek out and exploit their prey at all costs. They are also masters of gaining trust and avoiding detection and prosecution. To believe that such people can be deterred by increasing their sentences on the chance they are convicted, or by telling them they can't live next to schools, is probably as naive as it is politically expedient. If the offender is never reported or caught or, as is too often the case, is acquitted by a jury, these tougher laws accomplish nothing.

Our politicians and lawmakers must focus not only on punishment, but prevention and accountability as well. Programs to educate our children are critical. The vast majority of my clients, at the time they were abused, had no real concept of what was right or wrong with regard to sexual activity. Due to this lack of education and awareness, they were extremely vulnerable targets and easy prey for their tormentors, many of whom had the concepts of victim selection and "grooming" down to a science. Our children also need to understand that in the majority of these cases, the offender is not a "stranger" at all, but can be someone they know and even trust. I believe this process of education is starting, but it must become nearly institutionalized in order to comprehensively prevent sexual abuse from occurring in the first place.

A second critical aspect of a comprehensive program of prevention concerns using the civil justice system. Many sex offenders are harbored and enabled by institutions where they gain access to children, i.e., churches, schools, day care centers, youth organizations and even certain government agencies. Such institutions change their ways only when they are made vulnerable where it counts the most - in their wallets.

Only under the real threat and likelihood of financial liability are these institutions made accountable for their actions, and only then do they undertake measures necessary to properly screen, train and, most importantly, supervise and monitor their employees who have constant access to, and the opportunity to gain the trust of, our children. Otherwise, these institutions will continue to look the other way, cover up transgressions, and deny responsibility for their own failures.

Not only must our Legislature expand the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits against institutions in cases of sexual abuse, a proposal it resoundingly rejected only three short years ago, but it must recognize and understand the tremendous positive impact the threat of such civil litigation can have in preventing sex offenders from gaining unfettered access to an unwitting pool of victims.

Attorneys and investigators in civil cases often have far more procedural freedom to pursue sex offenders and bring them and those who protect them to justice. Many constitutional and procedural limitations present in the criminal system are relaxed in the civil system, including a lower burden of proof at trial and an increased ability to pursue discovery through depositions and subpoena power. Moreover, by obtaining financial compensation for the victims, the civil system does something the criminal system cannot do - help the victims receive the therapy, assistance and validation they need to recover from the terrible abuse they suffered.

While I support the current efforts to "get tough" with child molesters, these efforts address only one part of the problem. We also need to focus resources and risk political capital on prevention and institutional accountability. Only then can we claim to have undertaken comprehensive steps to protect our children from the lifetime of pain to which they are now exposed.

Peter Hutchins is a trial attorney at Wiggin and Nourie, P.A. in Manchester and a former president of the New Hampshire Bar Association.


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