Statutes of Limitations Hinder Sex Abuse Prosecutions

By Roja Heydarpour
The Times-Tribune

July 13, 2008

Even when the proper protocol is taken to report allegations of sexual abuse, many of them are never prosecuted because statutes of limitations limit the period in which charges can be filed.

Although criminal and civil statute of limitations periods have been extended recently, the law in place at the time of the crime supersedes any new statute.

A victim molested in 1990, for example, would have until the age of 20 to bring a claim to court, because that was the law in 1990. The law today gives the victim until age 50 in criminal cases and 30 in civil cases.

"We get this iceberg of cases that never get brought (to trial) because of statute of limitations," said Marci Hamilton, a constitutional lawyer and author of the book, "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children."

State Rep. Lisa Bennington, D-Allegheny County, introduced a bill in May 2007 that would allow victims to bring civil suits even if the statute of limitations has expired.

Other states have passed laws that establish a new period of time for victims to sue their alleged abusers in civil court, no matter when the abuse occurred. This law is commonly referred to as "window" legislation.

The law would apply to allegations of abuse against all sex offenders, not just clergy. It has languished in the House Judiciary Committee since its introduction.

The strongest opposition to the bill in Pennsylvania and across the country comes from the Catholic Church and insurance companies, Ms. Hamilton and Ms. Bennington said.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, a lobbying group, says it opposes the legislation because it could make the church uninsurable and vulnerable to lawsuits. "No organization will be able to provide services to children without insurance," Amy B. Hill, director of communications, wrote in an e-mail.

She also argued that the standard of proof in criminal cases is tougher than in civil ones. "For criminal cases there is a gatekeeper, a district attorney who can weed out doubtful criminal charges."

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