One of the factors that often works against victims of sexual abuse is delayed reporting. Victims who were abused as children sometimes stay silent for years before finally coming forward. In both criminal and civil trials, jurors are sometimes confused or skeptical when they hear that the alleged victim took so long to report the crime.
Thankfully, a new state law addressing this issue will soon be enacted after withstanding scrutiny from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The law will allow expert testimony from psychologists and other mental health professionals in court to explain and provide context for why a victim may wait so long to report sexual abuse.
Up until the early 1990s, expert testimony regarding child sexual abuse was permitted in court. But in 1992, the state Supreme Court held that such testimony was more likely to "invite speculation" than to clarify or explain an alleged victim's behavior. At the time, the Court opined that the reasons for victims' reporting delays were "easily understood by lay people and did not require expert analysis."
Thankfully, the precedent set by that earlier ruling has now been reversed. Many victims can now have an additional advocate in court who can explain the often complex emotional and psychological problems that stem from sexual abuse - especially abuse suffered in childhood.
As we have previously written, there are any number of reasons why victims may be reluctant to report the abuse they have suffered. These include:
- Feeling conflicted about loyalty because the abuser is a family member or family friend
- Feeling worried about their own safety or the safety of others due to threats made by the abuser
- If the abuser is a parent, the victim may worry that they will no longer have a home or food to eat if they report the abuse
- The victim is made to feel guilty and ashamed of what happened to them, or made to believe that it was their own fault
- Worrying that no one will believe the accusations
- Memories of the abuse may be repressed for years or even decades, only to be recalled suddenly and painfully in adulthood
Victims of sexual abuse deserve to be believed, and they deserve to have as many advocates as possible fighting for them. This new law will almost certainly aid those goals for victims here in Pennsylvania.