Roadblocks to Justice – Statute of Limitations Laws
Child molesters often hold a tremendous power over their victims. Abusers are often family friends and people in positions of authority like teachers, members of the clergy, even police officers or medical doctors. That’s why it can take a victim years, if not decades, to come forward and reveal the abuse. Unfortunately, for many victims who do eventually come forward, it is too late to take any legal action. This is especially true in cases where the abuse occurred decades ago. For these victims, criminal and civil statute of limitations laws often prevent them from seeking justice.
Many criminal and civil statute of limitations laws were written decades ago, before media attention to child sexual assault and abuses reached critical mass. Over the past few years, there has been widespread media attention in sex abuse scandals involving the Catholic Church, schools and other church organizations throughout the country. The attention given to these scandals has created a domino effect, and many victims have stepped forward.
Civil Windows – Statute of Limitations Reform
Another major, positive outcome has been changes in state statute of limitations laws. A handful of states have passed special laws, opening civil windows in child sexual abuse cases. These civil windows recognize that for child molestation victims, it is particularly difficult to face their abusers. These laws give survivors of abuse, whose cases were previously time-barred, the unique opportunity to seek justice by filing a civil lawsuit against their perpetrators.
Delaware was one of the first states to pass such a window, back in 2009. That 2 year window has since closed. Other states have passed similar windows such as Hawaii, Minnesota, and California. Various state legislatures have considered passing similar laws. However, any such efforts face intense lobbying efforts by church organizations. State legislatures in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have considered but failed to pass such windows.
Why We Need Statute of Limitations Reform
These civil windows are crucial. The unique dynamic between the abuser and the victim prevents survivors from stepping forward and facing their abusers. It takes an extraordinary act of courage for a person, who was sexually abused by a person in a position of power and authority, to come forward. There’s a nagging fear, “who’s going to believe me, when my abuser was a [priest, teacher, police officer, etc.]?” That’s why these cases can’t be treated like other types of civil tort cases. We must pass these civil windows to allow survivors to seek justice. The other reason is to simply ferret out abusers among us.
Success Story – Civil Windows Help Survivors Hold Abusers Accountable
One of our clients filed a civil lawsuit against his abuser, under Delaware’s civil window. The abuser was a well-respected sitting state court judge. The criminal statute of limitations had expired, so the judge was untouchable from a criminal standpoint. However, the civil case was successful. He signed a written admission (confession), was removed from the bench and later disbarred. If our client hadn’t had the courage to come forward and if Delaware hadn’t passed the civil window, this judge would likely still be on the bench. Watch a YouTube video of an interview at the 2014 National Crime Victim Bar Association Conference featuring this survivor’s incredible journey.
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