Bills would give more time to punish pedophiles
By Rod Boshart
Sioux City Journal
February 17, 2020
DES MOINES -- Iowa lags behind other states when it comes to aiding childhood victims of sexual abuse by adults — oftentimes family members, teachers, clergy or other close associates, according to experts.
“We would love to see Iowa step forward from being one of the worst in the country to being one of the best,” said Marci Hamilton, chief executive officer and academic director for Child USA, a Philadelphia nonprofit think tank working nationally to end child abuse and neglect.
Iowa ranks among the worst states in terms of its statute of limitation on child abuse laws and is “in the middle of mediocre land” for limits on child abuse civil actions. Meanwhile, it can takes years for abuse survivors to fully understand wrongs that were perpetrated against them, Hamilton said.
Last year saw a flurry of changes spurred by public outrage over a series of high-profile abuse situations. Twelve states eliminated their criminal statutes of limitations and nine — including Iowa — extended their time frames. A number of states extended or eliminated their civil provisions, and nine provided windows for victims to seek redress for alleged abuses that occurred before the period to bring claims had “timed out.”
This year two senators in Iowa have proposed separate measures aimed at eliminating Iowa’s statute of limitation on criminal and civil actions involving sexual abuse of children.
Under Iowa law that was amended last year, criminal charges in child sex-abuse cases must be brought within 15 years after the victim turns 18, or until he or she turns 33. For civil claims, a plaintiff must file suit within four years of discovering the abuse and the injury it caused.
Sen. Janet Petersen, a Des Moines Democrat who is the Senate’s minority leader and a longtime crusader on the issue, wants to eliminate the statute of limitations on criminal charges as other states have done and to increase the time frame for bringing a civil claim to 25 years after the victim is 18 and allowing any expired claims to be revived.
“Iowa is woefully behind other states,” Petersen said. “I’m hopeful that this may be the year that we get the bill down to the governor’s office.”
Legislation that was approved recently by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee also would eliminate the criminal provision, but would not go as far as Petersen proposes in the civil areas.
But Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the issue is a priority for him this session. He plans to bring the bill before the full committee in hopes of clearing the 2020 session’s first “funnel” deadline that requires policy bills to pass through at least one Senate or House standing committee to remain eligible this year.
“Right now there is no hope for the victims,” Zaun said. “I think this is a really important first step. Is this perfect? No, it’s a first step in the right direction.
“Obviously, it’s got a big challenging uphill battle to get this signed into law, but I believe that it needs to be done,” he added.
Advocates representing abuse survivors told Zaun’s subcommittee that crimes are often psychologically repressed for decades — Hamilton said the average age for an abuse victim to come forward is 52 — and only about 12 percent of abuses are ever reported.
However, representatives for church and school organizations feared they could be vulnerable to huge legal liabilities for past circumstances that might be hard to document.
“It takes a long time to digest this,” said Rhonda Martin, a woman who told subcommittee members she was abused when she was 8 and was just beginning to feel comfortable discussing it publicly. “If you do not extend the statute of limitations, you’re taking away the power from these powerless children.”
Amy Campbell of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault said abusers often target more than one victim, so enabling one to come forward could bring other situations to light.
“We’d like to see a look-back window so that those who currently are going through this process and coming to terms with what has happened to them, so that they have an opportunity,” Campbell said.
Carl Schilling of the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance said the sexual abuse of children usually involves “grooming” by a pedophile, which is “essentially brainwashing where the child becomes convinced that it is a consensual act and it can take years of therapy for a person to realize that it wasn’t their fault.”
Hamilton said victims also need a protective shield offered by the option of bringing civil legal action so perpetrators cannot intimidate them with the threat of a defamation lawsuit.
“In Iowa, this is one of the last holdouts that has an age cap on bringing child sex abuse statute of limitations reform,” said Hamilton, who recently came to the Iowa Capitol to discuss the issue with lawmakers and others.
“We’re working hard to try to be able to expand actual justice for the victims, which will then shift the balance of power from perpetrators and the institutions who aid them and shift the power to the victims so that they can help prevent abuse,” Hamilton added.
Most organizations registered on the proposed legislation either favor the provisions or are listed as undecided.
Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, the official policy voice for the Catholic bishops of Iowa, said his organization is monitoring the bill but likely would be opposed if a “look-back” provision were incorporated into the legislation.
He added that since 2003 there have been efforts within Iowa’s Catholic churches to advocate for victims and to provide widespread training to prevent future abuse.
Brad Epperly, a lobbyist for the Iowa Defense Counsel Association, expressed concern about the potential for liability from an allegation made about an incident that occurred decades ago without evidence still available for a defense.
Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, expressed similar concerns about past situations where details could be hard to verify.
David Mohler, a subcommittee speaker who said he spent years trying to clear himself of false criminal allegations, expressed concern that eliminating the statute of limitations would create problems for people like him who faced accusations from what he called “coached” complainants.
“I spent a significant part of my life and my fortune fighting these charges,” said Mohler.
“By extending the statute of limitations, it reduces the chance of someone who is falsely accused being able to get the evidence that they need to defend themselves from what in many cases feels like a sense of guilty until proven innocent.”
He said he was sensitive to the fact that there are real issues of children being abused. But “by extending the statute of limitations to basically a lifetime, the accusation becomes a weapon.”
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said his office has reviewed the various bills and is monitoring the legislative process.
A spokesman noted that unlike in some other states, such as Pennsylvania, Miller does not have the authority to launch a statewide investigative grand jury.
Last June, Miller’s office sent letters to the dioceses of Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque and Sioux City requesting information on records of clergy sexual abuse.
The office requested records on several topics, including lists of all priests, deacons or other clergy who were deemed as “credibly accused,” and records of “not credible” accusations of sexual abuse by the dioceses.
At the time, Chapman said the bishops were pledging full cooperation in the request for information to be voluntarily provided, noting that most of the information requested already was a matter of public record.
According to Attorney General spokesman Lynn Hicks, Miller’s office has received documents from all four dioceses. Staff investigators are reviewing cases in which claims of abuse were made to diocese officials but the allegations were either not considered credible or the alleged perpetrator was not included on the dioceses’ lists.
State officials have requested more information about several cases and staff members will make recommendations on how to proceed with each, he said.
“We’ve got some information” from the dioceses, Miller said. “We’re asking for more. We’re working through that.”
In the past, senators have approved legislation proposing to change Iowa’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse laws only to have it stalled in the House.
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, who is in his first year in the leadership position, said he was aware of the issue “but I’m unaware of what the legislation would look like so it would probably be premature to make any comments on that until I got more information.”
Petersen said she hoped the outgrowth of all this would be the passage of meaningful legislation this session “to remove Iowa’s criminal and civil statute of limitations and give adult survivors a five-year period to seek justice.”
Hamilton said when she first became actively engaged in this issue, she expected it would be a “nonpartisan, bipartisan no-brainer” to fix laws to ensure children being sexually abused would receive justice.
“But as I’ve learned, there are forces in our society that fight child sex abuse victims,” she said.
“In many ways, this is a revolutionary approach of leveling the playing field between those who were victimized when they couldn’t protect themselves and the ones who hurt them.,” Hamilton said. But “It’s really just old-fashioned American justice. It’s really not terribly complicated.”
One factor that hampers action, she said, is that the public doesn’t understand the prevalence and the constancy of child sex abuse.
“It’s 1 in 4 girls. It’s 1 in 6 boys. So in the state of Iowa, 25 percent of the girls are sexually abused. So anytime you’re in a room, the odds are that there is somebody in that room who was abused and has not disclosed. The odds are there is somebody in that room who was abused and is suffering but doesn’t know what to do about it, and doesn’t have the power to do anything about it.”