Our Legal System Needs the Tools to Stop Child Predators
By Michael Dolce
August 31, 2018
The eyes of the world turned again earlier this month to the horrors of child sexual abuse after the release of a 900-page report that uncovered decades of abuse and cover up in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
These horrific allegations are sadly not the first and unlikely to be the last. To deepen the injustice, many of the more than 1,000 victims identified by the Catholic Church's own records will never get their day in court, and many of the 300 predator priests who perpetrated these crimes in the state will never be held accountable.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse myself and an attorney who now represents victims of these crimes, I can say without doubt that Pennsylvania and other states' arbitrary statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse only further harm victims and enable predators to continue their abuse.
For survivors of child sexual abuse, the average time for reporting these crimes is 15 years; it took me 20 years to finally speak out about my own abuse.
However, in many states, the statute of limitations for civil or criminal prosecution is based on an arbitrarily chosen number of years and will expire well before many victims are mentally prepared to disclose the abuse. In Pennsylvania, child sex abuse victims can only sue between the ages of 18 and 30; and criminal charges must be filed by the time the victim is 50.
A promising conversation has started in the state with the introduction of legislation that would momentarily waive the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims--opening a window of two years for previously time-barred lawsuits.
This is a positive step, but repealing all statutes of limitation for civil and criminal prosecution of child sexual battery is what we need.
A snapshot of the impact: before we repealed the statute of limitations for child sex abuse in my home state of Florida, these statutes barred 70 percent of all criminal prosecutions.
The public reaction as new allegations of abuse come to light is, as usual, shock and outrage. But we must move from outrage to accountability and to do that we must better equip our justice system with the tools to prosecute predators and find justice for victims.
There are lessons for Pennsylvania to learn from my six-year fight to pass landmark legislation in Florida that, in 2010, finally repealed all statutes of limitation for civil and criminal prosecution of child sexual battery.
The value of repealing the statute of limitations seemed so obvious that, perhaps naively, I didn't expect much of a fight.
But, to combat well-financed, well-connected opposition, I had to build political support to overcome the strength of the Catholic leadership lobby, the insurance industry and the criminal defense bar, which all sought to tie up the bill indefinitely. Once we built our team of champions and got the legislation to the floor, it passed with a unanimous vote.
And individual predators can be exposed in their communities in civil or criminal litigation, such as an incest case brought by my client in Gainesville, Florida. In an August 2018 civil trial, the jury found that her father sexually abused her for 16 years, and that her mother failed to protect her.
The parents were previously well-respected in the business and religious community. Under the previous statute of limitation, they would never have answered in court due to delayed reporting. Florida's 2010 repeal made the trial possible.
Will passing legislation like this in Pennsylvania and states across the country bring an immediate end to sexual abuse of children? No, but these changes can bring much needed accountability to institutions that desperately need it.
Systemic child abuse and cover up is not unique to the Catholic Church. Recent headlines have chronicled the appalling abuses by Larry Nasser, the USA National Gymnastics Team doctor and physician at Michigan State University, and Richard Strauss, the team doctor at Ohio State University.
These incidents--along with the thousands more that do not make the headlines--share a common thread: adults acknowledge that they thought something was wrong or inappropriate but did nothing.
There continues to be a societal unwillingness to confront these issues, often putting institutional priorities over the physical and mental health of abuse victims. All of this, combined, has a powerful impact on the ability of abuse victims to come forward.
Many of those who were abused will never get their day in court. Their pursuit of justice will end outside the courthouse doors, which are locked to them by an arbitrary statute of limitation, while the predators continue to prowl the streets.
To truly find justice for these survivors and end this pattern of abuse, we must change the laws around the statute of limitations here and in states across the country.