Ending the Global Child Sex Abuse Crisis

Countless victims are silenced by bad laws and back-door agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that dismantle opportunities for justice.

For decades, the Catholic Church has sought to keep its record of abuse hidden by transferring abusive priests from one parish to another, refusing to collaborate with civil authorities during abuse investigations, and opposing national legal reform that would help survivors to seek justice. (Oliver Weiken via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, the United Nations General Assembly has designated a new annual World Day for the prevention of child sexual exploitation—and it couldn’t come soon enough. According to the World Health Organization, one in five women and one in 13 men worldwide have been sexually abused as children, and 120 million girls and young women under 20 years old have been victims of forced sexual contact.

The reality is that in most corners of the world, predators responsible for sexually abusing children are often allowed to walk freely due to short statutes of limitations (SOL) that block their victims from bringing criminal claims. Despite major strides in the United States to reform child sex abuse SOLs—including the recent passage and signing of the groundbreaking federal Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act of 2022—countless victims around the globe are silenced by bad laws and some countries’ legal agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that weaken, and at times completely dismantle, their opportunity for justice.

We need not look any further than our neighbors in Latin America to see the extent of this crisis and how these restrictive laws are impacting child victims of sexual abuse in their fight for justice. While data in this space is still extremely limited, the World Health Organization has determined that the prevalence of sexual violence is higher in the Americas compared to global estimates—with adolescent girls at especially high risk of abuse at the hand of someone they know. 

Mexico, for example, has the highest level of reported incidents of child sexual abuse of any country in the world, with a staggering 5.4 million cases each year. It’s one of nearly a dozen countries in the region that protect child predators through SOLs that limit the amount of time a survivor has available to seek justice in a court of law. 

In Europe, France has been recently rocked by damning revelations of sexual abuse and coverup by the country’s top Catholic clergy—following a report last year finding that the church has been responsible for abusing over 200,000 children in recent history. It’s just the latest in well-documented and systematic sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, which has aggressively done everything possible to avoid accountability in the United States and countries across the world.  

The church and its clergy have operated with such impunity for generations due to its cultural and legal grip in so many parts of the globe. Certain countries, such as Brazil and the Dominican Republic, have actual legal agreements negotiated with the Vatican to limit the ability of civil authorities to question accused clergy, compel the production of documents or even prosecute people associated with the Catholic Church—regardless of how heinous the crimes are. 

The church and its clergy have operated with such impunity for generations due to its cultural and legal grip in so many parts of the globe.

The good news is that some countries have pursued long overdue reform in recent years.

While these victories were not easy, we know that they can be won with the right information, public education, advocacy and mobilization.

SOL reform is the most critical first step in stopping child sexual abuse worldwide because it empowers survivors to come forward whenever they are ready and helps prevent future abuse. The psychological and physical trauma caused by abuse at a young age prevents most survivors from speaking out until they are in their 50s. Early brain development makes it difficult for a child to understand what is happening to them, and many survivors are silenced by their close relationships to their abuser or threats from institutions protecting them. 

But by eliminating SOLs, we can identify the child predators hiding in our communities and finally prioritize the prevention of child exploitation. These reforms are also critical to educate the public on the prevalence and risk of child sex abuse, and better prepare the global community to change the policies that have kept victims and the public in the dark. Never underestimate the power of the truth to change the world for the better. 

Sexual abuse and violence against children are among the most heinous crimes any person can commit—no matter what language you speak or where in the world you live. We can no longer let arbitrary statutes of limitations block justice for the millions of children around the world who have had their innocence robbed. 

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Marci A. Hamilton is the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit academic thinktank dedicated to interdisciplinary, evidence-based research to improve laws and public policy to end child abuse and neglect. She is also a professor of practice in the political science department and a resident senior fellow in the Program for Research on Religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Before moving to Penn., Hamilton held the Paul R. Verkuil chair in public law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University.