In our last post, we discussed an important legal hurdle that often prevents sex abuse victims from pursuing legal action against their abusers and the institutions that allowed abuse to happen. The civil statute of limitations caps the amount of time that victims have to file a lawsuit seeking compensation for the harms they suffered. But because sex abuse can be so traumatic (especially when suffered as a child), it often takes decades for victims to come forward about the abuse – well after the statute of limitations has expired.
Each state sets its own statutes of limitation (SOL). For many types of harms (like car accidents), the SOL is often around two years. But in response to growing awareness about the long-term damage of sexual abuse, many states have increased SOLs in sex abuse cases or passed legislation to temporarily remove SOLs so that victims could seek justice years or decades later.
One example is a measure that goes into effect in the State of New York this summer. Under the Child Victims Act, the state will lift the civil SOL for one year, allowing victims of any age to file a claim within that one-year window. It goes into effect on August 14, and the state expects at least 500 filings to occur on the first day alone.
Such legislation is not without controversy and criticism, however. In Rhode Island, for instance, lawmakers are considering a bill that would extend the SOL in child sex abuse cases from seven years to 35 years. The bill would also include a provision creating a three-year window in which claims could be brought even if the SOL had expired.
The main opponent of the three-year window is the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, which would presumably face overwhelming liability if victims of priest sexual abuse were no longer barred by SOLs. Lobbyists for the Church argue that the three-year window violates the due process clause in the state’s constitution because it would allow retroactive application of a current law to claims that had already been time-barred by the SOL.
To be sure, there are valid arguments to be made for why statutes of limitation are necessary. For one, memories fade and evidence disappears over time, and that can make it very difficult to prove whether a victim’s claim is true or false. But when it comes to childhood sex abuse, many now believe that special exceptions deserve to be made. The trauma of this crime is lifelong, yet many victims repress the memories (or stay silent about them) for decades. When they become ready to speak, they deserve to be heard and listened to.