Saturday, April 16, 2016

GateHouse: Pennsylvania lawmakers target sex offenders, again

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
April 15, 2016

Pennsylvania has had an agonizing and embarrassing series of scandals involving sexual exploitation of children. The Catholic Diocese of Philadelphia; Penn State; and the indictment of Franciscan friars in western Pennsylvania have whipped the state legislature into a frenzy.

Pennsylvania House Bill 1947 is a byproduct of those frenzied lawmakers. The bill would treat future child sex-abuse crimes like murder, which can be prosecuted any time, by eliminating a recently expanded 32-year statute of limitation.

Traditionally, the statute of limitations for pursuing criminal prosecution of child sexual assault was five years after the victim’s 18th birthday. In 2002, the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse was extended to 12 years after the victim’s 18th birthday. In 2007, the statute of limitations was extended again as part of a comprehensive package of statutes related to child abuse. As a result, Pennsylvania prosecutors have until the victim’s 50th birthday to file criminal charges for abuse that occurred before the victim turned 18. That would change, yet again, under the pending legislation.

The bill would also add 20 years to the 12-year civil statute of limitations for future cases. Such a change would allow child victims to file a civil suit until their 50th birthdays, up from their 30th under current law.

Therein lies the rub. If a lawmaker genuinely believes that sexual abuse of a child is equally heinous and akin to murder, then the families of murder victims should have an equal opportunity to file a civil lawsuit against the killer.

In Pennsylvania, the family of a murder victim has two years to pursue a wrongful death action. In the case of child sexual assault the victim would have — under the new legislation — 32 years to file suit after the victim’s 18th birthday.

That disparity is indicative of a knee-jerk response to a high profile series of cases and not a deliberative process to address evolving standards in the criminal justice system.

No one would advocate that a sexual predator should escape responsibility by way of a fortuitous passage of time. However, 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. An extended period of time to seek civil redress is certainly appropriate. Young victims of sex abuse are often reluctant to come forward. A victim’s conduct after an assault often conflicts with what one would expect. 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.

Jerome Elam, a victim of child sexual abuse, suggested in The Washington Times 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.

No analysis of this issue would be complete without also considering that sex offenders as a group have one of the lowest rates of recidivism of all crimes. According to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012, “the observed sexual recidivism rates of sex offenders range from about 5 percent after three years to about 24 percent after 15 years.”

The proposed bill passed the state house by a vote of 180-15. This legislation may well be needed, but it deserves serious debate and it appears the fear of being labeled soft on sex offenders may have influenced the strong bipartisan support.

The bill now heads to the state senate with the hope that it will be given sober and deliberate consideration.

— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

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