When New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed the latest bill to create access to justice for child sex abuse victims, there was a twist that you may have missed. The “window,” or time period during which civil statutes of limitations are suspended, applied not only to children, as 12 states and the District of Columbia have done, but also to victims who were sexually assaulted as adults. The current revolution in justice for victims has been led by child sex abuse victims as they have demanded, quite rightly, that their expired statutes of limitations no longer block justice. The SOLs are just a procedural deadline, an arbitrary hurdle, and these victims need to be validated in the legal system so that they can safely identify their abusers, shift the heavy cost of the abuse to the ones who caused it, and educate the public on the pandemic of child sex abuse. This is a banner year for SOL reform for the child victims.
As it turns out, the logic of the child SOL reform movement also applies to those victims sexually assaulted when they were adults. Shame and humiliation keep the victims from coming forward as does the power of the perpetrator over the victim, and the trauma can negatively affect psychological and physical health to the point that disclosure is delayed. In addition, the SOLs were unfairly short for so long that many of our victims assaulted as adults were unfairly shut out of the process. Finally, as with children, prosecutors failed to take action because of the difficulty of proving sex assault “beyond a reasonable doubt” and because of inadequate training on how to deal with the victims. New Jersey saw these problem and opened a window as of December 1, 2019, for two years that will let those sexually abused or assaulted at any age sue their perpetrators and the institutions that made it possible.
OSU and Dr. Richard Strauss: A Searing Example of Why SOL Reform Is Needed Even When the Victim Is Not a Child
Recent revelations that Dr. Richard Strauss of Ohio State University abused approximately 177 male students have prompted survivors to make a compelling case that they deserve justice. Now, these victims weren’t children but they were young college students and the shame and humiliation of their experience led them all to keep it secret until now. They have suffered, and in large part that has been due to OSU’s negligence. They knew about Strauss and did absolutely nothing to prevent more victims. If that sounds like the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, Penn State, Horace Mann, other boarding schools and USA Gymnastics to you, it’s because the pattern keeps repeating itself. People in power hear about others in positions of power that are sexually abusing or assaulting the vulnerable and nothing is done. This culture of callousness must change and that will only happen once the victims are empowered through the legal system. It’s not enough to invite their stories – we owe them justice.
The OSU victims are blocked right now by the state’s short SOLs for rape, and the federal government’s SOL under Title IX. Again, these arbitrary deadlines are clearly unfair and should not keep these victims from access to court.
Ohio looks like it might step up. Governor Mike Dewine is not happy with the OSU/Strauss situation and the failure of the rape laws to obtain justice, and so has recommended elimination of the criminal SOLs for rape (a move that will help victims in the future, though not this particular group as it is unconstitutional to revive expired criminal SOLs). His recommendation could be added to a pending bill that creates a narrow window for the OSU survivors. This window is reminiscent of the window in Michigan that was only good for the victims of Larry Nassar, as I discussed here. In both cases, the window is a step forward, to be sure, but every victim in the state deserves the same access to justice, and the public needs the names of the predators that are published once cases can be brought. Empowering one set of victims simply because we know about them is just not enough.
It is heartening to see officials in Ohio waking up to reality as the state does not have a pretty history on SOL reform, as I explain here.
Congress could also pass legislation that would open the door for the OSU victims through SOL reform under Title IX. For those college students sexually abused or assaulted by a university or school employee, whether professor, administrator, coach, doctor, or other person who exercises power over the student, there should be no statute of limitations defense where the entity received federal funds. That’s a simple federal fix for the injustice that has been visited on thousands of college victims.
Strauss, of course, is not the only university employee to engage in serial sex abuse and assault. Let’s not forget Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, Dr. George Tyndall at the University of Southern California, and Dr. Reginald Archibald, at Rockefeller University, among others.
The movement toward justice is our society’s way of leveling the playing field for sex abuse and assault victims, who have been silenced by pain, trauma, and a faulty legal system for too long. We won’t end this pernicious destruction of the next generation until we have opened the courthouse doors to all of them and let the chips fall where they may.