FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Why is opening a two-year window so important?
Pennsylvania’s children – including potential victims of child abuse – will benefit because perpetrators who have been protected, and whose crimes have been concealed, by unreasonable statutes of limitations will finally be exposed and brought to justice. A two-year window would, belatedly, provide Pennsylvania’s past victims the opportunity victims in other states have had to seek compensation for the devastating harm they suffered and to hold accountable those who inflicted or allowed it.
The most significant impact of lawsuits brought as a result of the window, besides the opportunity for abuse victims to seek justice, would be the identification of possibly hundreds of Pennsylvania pedophiles. Until now many have remained “under the radar” because the statute of limitations on their offenses prevented their victims from exposing them.
With the law as it now stands, pedophiles who were protected from prosecution or civil suit by antiquated statutes of limitations can continue, unexposed and uninhibited, in positions that afford them access to children and more potential victims. Nothing can be done with these offenders, or employers that shield them, even if victims of past abuse now come forward.
The presumption based on experience with most sex abusers is that they are serial offenders, preying on many victims over many years. The only hope of exposing them, bringing them to justice, and ending their access to children is through civil cases. Sexually abusive men may still be active priests, teachers, or coaches simply because their crimes were successfully concealed until the statute of limitations expired.
A two-year window for civil liability would, besides holding them accountable for past crimes, also help deny them continued access to children. In addition, the publicity attendant to their cases could help deter other potential abusers and any institutions that abet abuse.
In addition, institutions that in the past have knowingly shielded sexual abuse by their employees may finally be held accountable and face potential compensatory costs, helping to deter other institutions from doing the same.
A two-year window is consistent with Pennsylvania’s statute of limitation for torts, which provides a two-year period in which to file claims. The one-year window proved too short for some victims of childhood sexual abuse in California. The decision to come forward after many years, let alone decades, is not easy.
Whether justice was denied by an arcane statute of limitations or by the calculated concealment of wrongdoing by culpable institutions, the legislature has the authority to remedy the injustice by waiving the civil statute of limitations for two years.
· The incidence rate of child abuse and neglect in this country is about 10 times as high (40 children per thousand children per year) as the incidence rate for all forms of cancer (3.9 individuals per thousand individuals per year). Yet the federal fiscal year 2001 budget for the National Cancer Institute is $3.74 billion, while funding for CAPTA state grants, CAPTA discretionary grants, and CAPTA Community Based Grants combined totals only $72 million. We as a nation need to confront the substantial societal costs and devastating consequences with the same vigor as we tackle other national emergencies.
- Frank Putnam, M.D., researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, from “Why is it so Difficult for the Epidemic of Child Abuse to be Taken Seriously?”
· Imagine a childhood disease that affects one in five girls and one in seven boys before they reach 18 (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994): a disease that can cause dramatic mood swings, erratic behavior, and even severe conduct disorders among those exposed; a disease that breeds distrust of adults and undermines the possibility of experiencing normal sexual relationships; a disease that can have profound implications for an individual’s future health by increasing the risk of problems such as substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and suicidal behavior (Crowell & Burgess, 1996); a disease that replicates itself by causing some of its victims to expose future generations to its debilitating effects.
Imagine what we, as a society, would do if such a disease existed. We would spare no expense. We would invest heavily in basic and applied research. We would devise systems to identify those affected and provide services to treat them. We would develop and broadly implement prevention campaigns to protect our children. Wouldn’t we?
Such a disease does exist—it’s called child sexual abuse. Our response, however, has been far from the full-court press reserved for traditional diseases or health concerns of equal or even lesser magnitude. Perhaps the perception of sexual abuse as a law enforcement problem or our discomfort in confronting sexual issues contributes to our complacency. Whatever the reason, we have severely underestimated the effects of this problem on our children’s health and quality of life.
- Excerpted from a commentary by Dr. James Mercy’s, a researcher with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Mercy, J. A. (1999). Having New Eyes: Viewing Child Sexual Abuse as a Public Health Problem. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 11(4), 317-321.
· Child abuse and neglect cost our society, not only in terms of the trauma caused to the maltreated individuals, but also in economic terms. Read more at The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence.