Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Statute of Limitations: Justice for All

The Pennsylvania Law Weekly
August 7, 2012

For more than 16 months, Pennsylvania legislators have been pushing for a law that would provide victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to file civil suits or criminal complaints against their alleged abusers. The proposal would actually eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions and extend the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits an additional 20 years.

Recently, with the national spotlight on Pennsylvania — between Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State sex-abuse scandal and Monsignor William J. Lynn and the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia child sex-abuse cover-up — the stalled legislation moved forward.

The new legislation is sure to pass. The cloud of sexual exploitation of children hovering over the commonwealth recently ushered in the use of expert witnesses for the prosecution of sexual assault. House Bill 1264 passed 197-0 in the House and 48-0 in the Senate. Pennsylvania was the last state to permit the use of experts in sex-abuse cases.

Under the proposed statute of limitations legislation, a defendant could face criminal prosecution based on allegations of rape that occurred 50, 60 or even 70 years ago.

Young victims of sex abuse are often reluctant to come forward. No one would advocate that a sexual predator should escape responsibility by way of a fortuitous passage of time. A victim's conduct after an assault often conflicts with what one would expect. Jerome Elam, a victim of child sexual abuse, wrote in The Washington Times, "As victims of childhood molestation boys face significant and unique barriers in reporting what they intuitively know is inappropriate behavior." (See "An end to silence: Child sex abuse victims speaking out," Nov. 27, 2011.)

Statistically, one in eight males is a victim of abuse and a child has to tell seven adults of suspected abuse before he or she is taken seriously. Elam suggested that rates of suicide among male victims of childhood sexual abuse are 14 times higher than the norm and child victims are 38 times more likely to die from a drug overdose.

With that as a backdrop, it is important to acknowledge that the statute of limitations plays an important and long-standing role in criminal and civil jurisprudence. The statute of limitations has been around since antiquity. As time passes, memory fades, witnesses die and evidence disappears. The statute of limitations protects individuals from facing charges under those hopeless circumstances.

The long-delayed legislation was consolidated by House Judiciary Chairman Ron Marsico and finally put to a vote. It passed unanimously.

House Bill 2488 abolishes the age limit for reporting child sexual abuse. Amended versions of HB 832 (to eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal and civil sex-abuse cases) and HB 878 (creates a special two-year window for filing civil actions for child sex abuse where the ability to seek redress has expired) also recently made it out of the House Judiciary Committee. As amended, the three bills would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sex-abuse cases and increase the time frame for pursuing a civil claim from age 30 to age 50.

Marsico said he was yielding to pressure from colleagues and would have preferred to wait until a task force he had formed on child-abuse legislation issued its final recommendations this fall.

"However, a number of legislators have been insisting on our committee to act now, before the task force has completed its job," Marsico told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Under current law, victims have until age 30 to sue alleged abusers and until age 50 to pursue criminal charges. The current law took effect on Jan. 28, 2007. That was a significant change within only the last 10 years. Prior to 2002, the statute ran for only five years after the victim's 18th birthday. In 2002, the statute of limitation was extended to 12 years.

What are the concerns with amending the statute of limitations?

Daniel M. Filler, a professor at Drexel University's Earle Mack School of Law, told the Allentown Morning Call, "Increasing or eliminating the statute of limitations might lead to more justice, but it also might increase more injustice. The question is how much injustice are we willing to tolerate to get more justice."

Filler believes that a line must be drawn. "The Pennsylvania legislature made a tough call and said, for the purposes of reporting child sex abuse, you can report it up until age 30. This recognizes that it's tough to report — but by 30 many people are out from under the thumb of an authority figure."

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, the Republican candidate for attorney general, said in a widely published op-ed in support of abolishing the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions, "While the legal procedure for substantiating a crime that happened 10, 20 or even 30 years prior can be difficult, this should not preclude or deny a victim from coming forward to seek justice."

Filler suggested that "a statute of limitations is needed. It's the only way a defendant has a chance to disprove such allegations. It's impossible to find an alibi so long after the event is said to have occurred. The older the memories are, the fear is that it's more brittle and more likely a person is to create misremembrances."

Former Lackawanna County prosecutor and Democratic candidate for attorney general Kathleen Kane also supports abolishing the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions: "There should be no statute of limitations against prosecuting sexual predators. I believe law enforcement must be provided the legal means to arrest and prosecute sexual offenders, regardless if the crime occurred a week ago or decades ago," Kane said in a statement.

Prosecuting sexual assault is a worthy goal. Holding those who harm others, particularly children, liable for their heinous conduct should be the goal of every society. However, as Filler suggested, how much injustice are we willing to tolerate to get more justice?

Accusations are not always sincere. How does a person accused of abusing a child in 2012 defend against that allegation in 2052? Can an accused be reasonably afforded justice in defending alleged abuse so long ago? These questions seem worthy of examination while the legislature debates amending or abolishing the statute of limitations.

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