The movement to eliminate the child-sex-abuse statutes of limitations (“SOLs”) so that victims can obtain justice is stronger and more impressive than ever. Never before has there been so much activity in so many states at once. Last year, Hawaii enacted a 2-year window, and a few other states expanded their SOLs. (Such bills allow claims that would otherwise have been timed out, to be revived and brought to court during a specified period of time.) This year, windows, the extension, or elimination of SOLs are pending in many states, including Minnesota, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. Plus Arkansas already eliminated its criminal SOL. This is progress!
The Minnesota House passed a statute of limitations (SOL) window bill yesterday. (Such bills allow claims that would otherwise have been timed out, to be revived and brought to court during a specified period of time.)
Illinois let a bill that would eliminate the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse out of committee this week.
And in New York, Assemblywoman Marge Markey’s Child Victims Act, which has been improved, and introduced for the seventh time, has the most co-sponsors in history.
California, which was a leader in the movement to punish and ultimately end child sex abuse with successful window legislation in 2003, is seriously considering a new, comprehensive set of proposals that would eliminate the SOLs for many victims.
Pennsylvania has two remarkable lawmakers fighting for child-sex-abuse statute of limitations window legislation, Rep. Mike McGeehan and Rep. Mark Rozzi. Because the committee chairs have refused for years to let these bills out of committee, McGeehan and Rozzi have taken the novel step of adding the statute-of-limitations window bills to related legislation that is already slated for the floor.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Sen. Joseph Vitale, a longtime advocate for the rights of sex assault and abuse victims, will re-introduce his child sex abuse statute-of-limitations window bill in the near future.
This is a bevy of legislative activity we have never seen before and it is due to the hard work of many survivors, supporters, and legislators across the United States.
Strong and Effective Advocacy Groups for Victims
In addition to all the positive developments in so many states, important and powerful advocacy groups for victims have come forward like never before, including the Ms. Foundation, the National Crime Victims Center, the National Child Protection Training Center, Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, Catholics4Change, the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, justice4pakids, Massachusetts Citizens for Children, MaleSurvivor, Victims’ Voices Heard, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Child Protection Project, Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, Vertigo Charitable Foundation, and Oregon Abuse Advocates & Survivors in Service.
There was a time when members of state legislatures were afraid to be publicly identified with these bills. For example, when the first press conference on child sex abuse was held in Pennsylvania in 2006, uninvolved members shielded their faces as they passed by to avoid having their photos appear in the press! But this year, with the kickoff of the Pennsylvania bills, ten members of the state legislature stood tall in front of the gathering and the cameras, and every one of them spoke passionately about the protection of children and the need for SOL reform.
The arguments in favor of enabling victims to enter the justice system have grown stronger with each day, as one institution after another has been shown to be inadequate to protect children if left to its own devices: public schools, private schools, universities, churches, synagogues, shuls, and mosques have been shown to have been dangerous places for children. The public only recently learned that a priest, Fr. Carroll Howlin—under the control of the Joliet, IL, Diocese—was credibly accused of abuse and yet continued to work near and with children. How did the Joliet Diocese supervise Howlin after they deemed the claims against him to be credible? The answer is sickening: They removed him from ministry, and sent him to Kentucky, where he has been welcoming youth groups from a wide variety of faiths.
Some Legisators Are Now Demanding Justice Not Only for Abused Children, but Also for the Bishops Who Failed to Protect Them
This year, we also have heard the voices of brave and visionary legislators demanding accountability from bishops. The tireless and determined Sen. Joseph Vitale (NJ-D) has demanded the resignation of the Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, after it was learned that he permitted convicted sex abuser Fr. Michael Fugee to work and travel with children. According to Myers, he thought it was fine to put Fugee near children, so long as Fugee was supervised. Bishops who continue to believe that they can adequately supervise a cunning, compulsive pedophile need to be removed, for obvious reasons.
Across the country, the movement for justice for child-sex-abuse victims is finding that conversations that used to begin with a discussion of the Catholic bishops’ opposition (and then often ended abruptly) are now started by a member’s saying, “They don’t deserve deference on this issue. Let’s get to the substance.” With legislators paying close attention to these issues—and under pressure to increase children’s legal protections from sexual abuse and exploitation—the question that must be asked is: Who is afraid of such legislation?
The most fearful are the Catholic bishops, who are spending thousands, if not millions, in every state, in an attempt to stave off reform. What do the bishops fear most? In a word: truth. The nightmares of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are filled, no doubt, with visions of every single state in the Union repeating the California scenario, where a window led to thousands of pages from their files revealing the basic truth that Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles operated with ice-cold logic as he manipulated victims and families in order to protect pedophile priests from the law.
In fact, the leading opponent to child sex abuse legislation in most states has been the Catholic Conference, which is the state lobbying arm for the bishops. In New York, they have joined arms with Agudath Israel, working assiduously to keep the lid on the depraved child-sex-abuse situation in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, where victims and families who report abuse are subjected to shunning and cruelty from their own communities.
In Minnesota, SOL reform is being fought by the Minnesota Religious Council (which represents Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches), the Minnesota Child Care Association (which I would re-name the Minnesota Don’t Care Association), and the Association of School Administrators, who should be ashamed of themselves for choosing the path that favors predators and endangers children.
In California, too, the Seventh Day Adventists have actively opposed justice for victims.
Suffice it to say that the groups in opposition to legislative reform regarding child sex abuse appear to be concerned about reputation and money. That concern, of course, is what gets an institution in trouble on these issues in the first place. It is up to legislators to turn them away from such shortsighted concerns. Legislators need to look at the leaders of these organizations in the eye and then endorse the justice system—to let victims go to court.
Until recently, many legislators were afraid of the churches and, therefore, they blocked these bills for the bishops, rabbis, and ministers. Now that many legislators are finally seeing that being in league with the religious groups on this issue is the same as choosing the pedophiles’ team, we have come to a place where, finally, real change is possible.