Overdue Justice for Sexual Abuse Survivors: States Repeal Statutes of Limitations Throughout the Country

Two dozen state legislatures have opened one- or two-year ‘windows’ during which any victim can sue any person who molested them in childhood and any institution that ignored or hid the abuse, regardless of when the abuse took place.

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One in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. (Austin Monitor / Creative Commons)

For the first time in history, one in five victims of child sexual abuse victims in the U.S. have a chance to file civil lawsuits to seek justice and publicly expose those who committed or concealed the crimes against them.

“Never before have so many suffering survivors had an opportunity to protect others by naming child molesters and uncovering cover ups of these horrors in court,” said survivor and advocate Joelle Casteix of Orange County, Calif. 

For decades, what advocates call ‘archaic, arbitrary and predator-friendly’ statutes of limitations have prevented such litigation, because victims have been required to step forward usually in their 20s—far sooner than most are capable of, according to most research

But in recent years, two dozen state legislatures have reformed or repealed these statutes, opening one- or two-year ‘windows’ during which any victim can sue any person who molested them in childhood and any institution that ignored or hid the abuse, regardless of when the abuse took place.

Three of the largest states with open ‘windows’ right now are California, New Jersey and New York—though New York’s deadline is August 13.

“Right now, in New York state alone, more than 7,000 victims have pending cases,” Casteix said. “It’s absolutely unprecedented.”

“In several states, even people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, who have long been told or long assumed they had no legal recourse can now take legal action,” Casteix said. Back in 2003, she successfully sued the Catholic teacher who sexually violated her in high school during a ‘window’ in her home state.

“I ‘outed’ him as a predator in my lawsuit, it was covered in the media and then others he hurt broke their silence too and started healing,” she said. “My perpetrator was suspended and moved out of state. I’m confident it’s much tougher these days for him to find trusting parents and vulnerable kids.”

Other states that provide these ‘window’ opportunities include Maine, Louisiana, North Carolina, Arkansas, Nevada and Vermont, according to a national think tank called ChildUSA. 

In most states, the majority of the abuse and cover up lawsuits are against Catholic institutions, though schools, camps and other religious groups have been targeted as well. 

‘Window’ legislation is usually vigorously opposed by insurance companies and church hierarchies.

“Though Republicans lawmakers most often side with large entities like dioceses and insurance companies—and against victims—this is really not a partisan issue,” said Zach Hiner, current director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). 

“Charging and convicted child molesters is tough,” he said. “So the next best way to protect kids is to expose the criminals who assault them. Thankfully, many legislators are coming to this realization.”

‘Window’ laws also deter abuse and cover up,” Hiner added. “Employers and supervisors hate the thought of being deposed and dragged into court to defend their reckless and callous behavior, so every one of these lawsuits is a clear, stern warning to decision-makers who may be tempted to be lax with kids’ safety.”

In New York, roughly 3,300 lawsuits are pending against Catholic agencies and entities, according to the website of Jeff Anderson, a prominent clergy abuse attorney. The cases are against 1,700 individuals, nearly 200 of whom are named publicly for the first time. 

“Somehow, pastors and principals and coaches and camp counselors must work harder to safeguard vulnerable children,” Casteix said. “And until they do, it’s crucial that we who have been violated do what we can to use the courts to warn the public about dangerous predators while getting justice, closure and healing for ourselves.”

If you are interested in filing a lawsuit related to childhood sexual abuse and are in one of the following states—Arkansas, California Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey and New York—call an attorney or head to ChildUSA.org for more information on how to take action. Specifically, ChildUSA’s Statute of Limitations tracker can provide the best list for the status of SOL reform state by state. If you are in any other state, contact your state legislators and ask for a similar window.

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About

For 33 years, David Clohessy was the co-director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He has been a community organizer and political consultant and lives in St. Louis Missouri. He can be reached at davidgclohessy@gmail.com.