By The Post-Standard Editorial Board (Syracuse.com)
January 2, 2012
The sexual abuse charges against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the allegations of abuse by former assistant Syracuse University basketball coach Bernie Fine have drawn attention to a reality children's advocates have long known: Victims of child sexual abuse often wait years before talking about the incidents.
In New York, that means many victims wait too long to be able to seek justice in the courts. Under current state law, the statute of limitations for most sexual felonies involving child victims is five years after the victim turns 18. Bobby Davis, the first person to accuse Fine of sexually abusing him as a child, was 30 when he first reported the alleged abuse in 2002. Mike Lang, who accused Fine in November, is also too old to seek criminal or civil charges in New York.
It's not unusual for people to go decades without telling anybody about troubling sexual abuse, experts say. Complicated feelings of shame, guilt and fear make it difficult for some to talk about it at all. That means some perpetrators may go free, possibly to abuse others.
New attention to the issue should propel the state Legislature next session to extend the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse and allow more victims to seek justice in the courts.
Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, D-Queens, has since 2005 been pushing the Child Victims Act. Her bill would extend the statute of limitations by five years for criminal cases and by 10 years for civil cases. She also supports a one-year window for victims to file claims in cases that were previously time-barred.
The Assembly three times passed versions of this bill, but the legislation died in the Senate.
Critics — including officials of the Catholic Church, which is coping with its own child sex abuse scandals — say over time, memories fade, witnesses die and evidence becomes more difficult to secure. Others say an extension or window would encourage lawsuits. Neither complaint is reason to limit victims' rights.
"This bill will provide a remedy for those whose lives have been unalterably changed by the horror of childhood sexual abuse," says a memo to the Markey bill. "Victims of these horrific crimes will get their day in court and be able to seek the justice they have been denied."
A one-time, limited window is worth considering to show victims the state's court system is serious about prosecuting abusers. And going forward, childhood victims should have longer to report abuse they endured.