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Child sex abuse: Why lifting statute of limitations is crucial

Earlier this week, we wrote about the passage of an important piece of legislation in Massachusetts. Signed into law by Gov. Patrick yesterday, the bill lifts the statute of limitations on many sexual abuse cases. Child sex abuse survivors would have until the age of 53 to pursue civil lawsuits against their abusers and others who may have been negligent or complicit.

It may be reasonable to impose statutes of limitation for certain criminal and civil offenses, but not when it comes to child sex abuse. Young victims often repress memories or otherwise keep silent well into adulthood. By the time they are able to consciously process what happened to them, it is often too late to file a lawsuit against their abuser.

As just one example of delayed legal action, the Archdiocese of Seattle recently settled 30 claims of child sexual abuse for a total of $12.1 million. The victims, now adults, were students when they suffered sexual abuse at two church-run schools they attended in western Washington. The latest incidents date back 30 years, with some claims stretching back 60 years. In fact, one of the two schools where the abuse occurred has been closed since the late 1960s.

In this particular case there were likely two reasons for the decades-long delay between the abuse and the legal action. The first is what we discussed above. Victims can carry the pain of childhood sexual abuse for a lifetime before coming to terms with it.

The second reason is that the abuse involved the Catholic Church. As has been demonstrated time and time again, the Church was involved in active cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse for decades. Rather than being reported to police, priests who sexually abused children were often moved to different churches or parishes where they would typically go on to abuse more children. Some were quietly removed from ministry and given years of financial support.

In cases of child sexual abuse, statutes of limitation only serve to protect the abusers. That’s why Massachusetts legislators and Gov. Patrick made the right move by unanimously voting to remove that barrier to justice.

Source: KomoNews.com, "Seattle Archdiocese pays $12M to settle sex abuse claims," June 24, 2014

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