Penn State and Syracuse May Open Much-Needed “Windows” for Child-Sex-Abuse Survivors

Last week, Pennsylvania lawmakers held informal hearings to discuss legislative action in the wake of the Penn State scandal. One idea was mandating that witnesses report such crimes to police (since apparently that’s not a “no-duh“). Two other top reforms emerged that may seem less obvious, but are no less necessary.

The first is to extend the statutes of limitations (both criminal and civil) for such crimes. Usually, child sexual abuse is only reported years–sometimes decades–after the actual crime has occurred, at which point both the criminal and civil statutes of limitations have expired. Extending the statutes is therefore an important first step in holding perpetrators accountable.

But the Supreme Court has ruled that criminal extensions to the statutes of limitations cannot be retroactively applied to past offenses. That’s why the second reform is necessary: creating a retroactive “civil window” for past victims of child sexual abuse to bring suit. These laws give victims a legal window of months or years to come forward and name their perpetrators in open civil court, no matter when the crime occurred.

New York is considering a similar “window” bill, bolstered by the inability of local prosecutors to criminally charge Syracuse coach Bernie Fine (despite sufficient evidence that he abused children) because the statute of limitations had passed.

Such child-sex-abuse window laws in California and Delaware have been tremendously successful. They exposed hundreds of predators across both states and allowed victims to gain access to abuse and cover-up records and court document. These laws also allowed victims to sue the institutions that covered up for and protected the predator. For institutions such as the Catholic Church, these laws forced church officials to turn over evidence about predators who had been working in churches and schools and offending for decades.

Victims’ advocates also hail civil windows as inexpensive and effective anti-crime legislation. Cases in California and Delaware have shown that when older victims are allowed to come forward in court and unearth decades of hidden evidence, younger victims feel safer talking to law enforcement. Law enforcement then has greater ability to find, charge and jail predators.

These laws also use the civil system to effectively punish organizations in a way that criminal laws cannot, penalizing institutions like the Catholic Church for knowingly allowing molesters to prey on children. Civil judgments can also force the institution to take some financial responsibility for caring for victims, instead of pushing the entire burden of care onto over-stretched public social services–which have paid for the care of sex abuse victims and their families for dozens of years. But as victim Mary Ferrell told the Los Angeles Times in 2007, going to court has little to do with money, “I didn’t sue for the money … I would give back the money if I could have my childhood back.” Usually, survivors are worried about keeping their predators from abusing more children.

In the end, the best way to ensure child safety is to allow child sex abuse victims access to criminal courts and civil avenues for accountability. Richard Tollner from the NY Coalition to Protect Children states the case for civil windows the best: “Rape and murder in New York State have no statute of limitations–as does parking tickets. But for the sexual abuse of a child, that has to be reported before the age of 23.”

Let’s hope that New York and Pennsylvania legislators share the same common sense.

Photo from Flickr user Viv@MiVid@ under Creative Commons 2.0.