Abuse Victims Get More Time to Seek Justice

By Teresa Lostroh
May 1, 2012

More than 100 adults who were sexually abused as children have come to Cynthia Topf for help over the past 25 years, the Omaha clinical psychologist said.

A definitive event — the death of their abuser or the birth of a child, for example — often prompts victims to seek counseling for the anger, depression and nightmares that can linger long after the abuse.

Topf works with some clients to emotionally prepare them as they seek justice in civil courts. But many victims come to her long after the opportunity for their day in court has expired.

Under current Nebraska law, child sexual assault lawsuits must be filed by the victim's 25th birthday. Criminal child sex assault cases have no statute of limitations.

Psychologists, counselors, lawmakers and lawyers argue that the statute of limitations doesn't provide enough time for victims to come forward. It can take decades, experts say, to overcome shame, guilt, embarrassment and fear of retaliation.

They applauded a new state law, which takes effect in July, that will allow individuals to file civil claims against their alleged sexual abusers until they turn 33.

The extension won't apply to cases that already have expired.

“The old law cut off kids soon after they reached adulthood and said, ‘If you're not willing to deal with it now, too bad, the perpetrator is off the hook,' ” said state Sen. Pete Pirsch of Omaha, a former criminal prosecutor and sponsor of the bill that changed the law. “The bill gives them a little more time to come to grips with what has occurred and to seek action.”

Joan Hillman, now of Omaha, said an Iowa priest repeatedly raped her in the summer of 1966 when she was 8 years old.

“I didn't really understand what happened until years later,” Hillman said.

Decades passed by the time she tried to sue. No physical evidence remained. The priest was dead.

By law, it was too late.

“I wanted to file suit to bring about accountability and hopefully some type of compensation, but there's no amount of money that could ever compensate for what I've been through,” said Hillman, who now is 53.

Although her case was subject to Iowa's statute of limitations, Hillman lobbied Nebraska legislators last year to give victims like her more time to sue. But the 2011 legislative session ended without a vote on Pirsch's bill.

Since then, prominent claims of alleged sexual abuse against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, former Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin and clergy across the country cast the spotlight on states' statutes of limitations.

Senators approved Pirsch's bill this year without opposition.

Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among the states that recently have re-evaluated their time limits for victims to file civil cases.

Opponents argue that the extensions could unleash a flood of lawsuits.

They say statutes of limitations exist to help courts operate efficiently and to protect individuals from being accused of crimes based on faded memories and old evidence, if evidence exists at all.

Catholic conferences in some states have publicly denounced such legislation, but the Nebraska Catholic Conference doesn't have an official stance on Pirsch's bill, said Executive Director Jim Cunningham.

Proponents of Pirsch's bill said child sex assault cases are unique and should be treated accordingly.

“I think (the new law) is a win for victims of child sexual abuse,” said John Velasquez, an Omaha lawyer. “Quite frankly, I wish it would be extended a little bit further.”

Velasquez and Lincoln lawyer Herb Friedman said they have turned away multiple potential clients over the years because the statute of limitations had expired.

Nebraska courts have ruled against several plaintiffs who tried to proceed despite the law's time limit. In 2008, a federal judge in Omaha threw out a 41-year-old man's lawsuit against the Omaha Archdiocese.

Sex abuse claims against Boys Town were dismissed in 2006 because of the statute of limitations, and lawsuits against a teacher and a principal at a Lutheran school in Seward met the same fate in 2005.

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