Society’s understanding of child sexual abuse is evolving. We now know that abuse can happen in even the most trusted communities, places where, for a long time, we believed children were safe from harm. We also know that the effects of abuse can last a lifetime, impacting a victim in ways both big and small.
Some survivors have had the opportunity to bravely stand up, tell their story and bring the abuser to justice. But others are being forced to remain silent – in part due to outdated laws.
The statute of limitations
Throughout the U.S. a number of states are taking steps to change the statute of limitations for cases involving child sexual abuse. Driving this sea change are children’s rights organizations, which argue the low rate of child sexual abuse reporting is due, in large part, to overly restrictive statutes of limitations.
These laws do not take into account the long-lasting trauma that can stem from surviving sexual abuse as a child. Many victims aren’t able to talk privately about incidents of sexual abuse until decades after the fact, much less take the step of bringing a lawsuit against the perpetrator. When that abuser also is involved with a large, powerful institution – a university, a religious organization, a respected youth group, an athletics program – it often becomes even more daunting.
Proponents of changing statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse cases argue allowing for victims to file claims later in life offers an opportunity to pursue justice, while helping to prevent such a crime from happening to others in the future.
Pennsylvania has not changed its laws
In Pennsylvania, sexual abuse victims who were under the age of 18 when the abuse occurred have 12 years after reaching the age of 18 to file a civil case. With half of victims who report their abuse as an adult not being able to do so until after the age of 51, that 12-year window shuts well before many of them are ready to speak up.
In 2019, Pennsylvania legislators had a chance to follow the lead of their neighbors by opening the door for abuse victims to file claims well after the current statute of limitations expired. Instead, the considered bills went nowhere, leading one Philadelphia Inquirer writer to describe the lack of action as “Pennsylvania at its most bankrupt.”
There is certainly momentum for a more lenient statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. It is possible the state Legislature even revisits the issue in the future. But as it stands now, there are abusers out there who will never have to answer for their crimes, and victims who are being denied a chance at justice.