NEW YORK—An increasing number of U.S. states are giving childhood victims of sexual abuse more time to decide if they want to file lawsuits, part of a growing trend to expand the statute of limitations—one of the major legal impediments for victims.
So far this year, at least three states—California, New York, and New Jersey—have signed similar legislation. Most victims who experience sexual abuse in their childhood don’t disclose their trauma until adulthood, multiple studies have indicated.
The statute of limitations in some cases can aid perpetrators in avoiding prison sentences on the criminal side, and can also aid them in avoiding paying compensation on the civil side. The statute is the maximum amount of time a person has to bring a lawsuit, either criminal or civil. The amount of time differs from state to state and also depends on the specific claim.
Lawyers, policy experts, and victim advocacy groups told The Epoch Times the trend among states is a step in the right direction. They attribute some of the increasing awareness on these issues to high-profile cases that have involved powerful and trusted figures who have taken advantage of children.
Most recently, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into effect on Oct. 13 a law that gives childhood sexual abuse victims until the age of 40, or five years from the discovery of the abuse, to file civil lawsuits. Previously, the limit was at 27 years of age, or within three years of the discovery of the abuse.
Earlier this year, both New York and New Jersey raised their statutes of limitations to age 55.
“Legislators are starting to understand that something has to be done,” Sean Holihan, policy manager at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), told The Epoch Times.
“We are now seeing sweeping reforms across the country,” he said. “Many states have enacted legations around the statute of limitations.”
RAINN, one of the largest nonprofit anti-sexual assault organizations in the United States, works with states to eliminate the statute of limitations, Holihan said. Eight states have already completely removed the statute for sexual assault, as it relates to criminal law.
“I think we are going to see many other states follow suit,” Holihan said. “And I would expect multiple states to introduce legislation in 2020.”
West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, and Maryland, as well as the District of Columbia, have removed the statute of limitations. Holihan said RAINN is currently working with Florida, New Hampshire, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and Arkansas on similar legislation.
California’s new law also suspends the statute of limitations for three years, beginning from January 2020, allowing victims of any age the ability to bring lawsuits if they wish.
New York also suspended its statute of limitations for one year, leading to hundreds of lawsuits against hospitals, schools, the Roman Catholic Church, and recently deceased sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Similar lawsuits could follow in California.
“A lot of the legislators have realized that victims of childhood abuse for a number of years are ashamed or unable to come forward,” New York attorney Michael H. Joseph told The Epoch Times. “I think other states are going to wake up and realize that this is a real problem.”
“It’s fundamentally unfair that people who have perpetuated child sexual abuse basically are able to get away with it, by using the age of the child as a way to keep them from coming forward,” Joseph said. “It doesn’t make sense to allow just the passage of time to shield people who have engaged in this.”
In California, much of the opposition to the law came from school districts, which warn that the legislation goes too far.
Lawsuits filed up to four decades after the fact make it much harder to gather evidence because witnesses are more likely to have moved away or died. In addition, the law changes the legal standard for liability, making it easier for accusers to win in court.
Mary McKenna, the leader of the New York City chapter of the nonprofit “Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests” told The Epoch Times via email that many victims are now speaking out amid the new laws.
“I hope more states will do this as victims [on average] don’t typically find their voice until age 52,” she said.
RAINN’s Holihan said it’s easier to win a judgment in a civil case than a conviction in a criminal case. It comes as a number of U.S. states have announced that they’re investigating clergy sexual-abuse allegations linked to the Roman Catholic Church.
More than half of the 187 Roman Catholic dioceses across the United States have started investigating clergy over child sex-abuse claims or have announced plans to do so, marking an extraordinary, renewed shift to look into a scandal plaguing the church.
“If they are not able to get their abuser behind bars, they hope to impact perhaps the organization that protected them, for example, the boy scouts or the Catholic church,” he said. “Any group with a systematic environment that protects abusers. They want to make sure their abuser never does this to anyone again.”
“What this essentially does is it allows a prosecutor to conduct a criminal investigation of someone years after the case has actually happened,” he said, referring to the eight states eliminating the statute of limitations. “It doesn’t mean the case is a slam dunk conviction, it just allows the prosecutor to do that.”
Julie Rendelman, a New York criminal defense attorney and former homicide prosecutor, told The Epoch Times previously that expanding the statute of limitations can help victims get justice.
She said there was also some cause for concern from a defense perspective as the new law, to an extent, opens the door to frivolous lawsuits.
“The longer an individual has to seek civil remedies for an alleged criminal act, the more difficult it is for the accused to defend themselves,” she said. “Witnesses that could support the accused may die or not recall the incident after so many years. Forensics, such as DNA, is often nonexistent.”