By Jetta Bernier and Jeffrey Dion
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Massachusetts has an historic opportunity to establish a “zero-tolerance” policy for child sexual abuse. The Legislature must pass, before the upcoming recess, bills that would eliminate the civil and criminal statutes of limitation for these heinous crimes. Reform is necessary if the state is serious about no longer allowing sexual predators and those who assist them through silence and inaction to escape accountability.
Decades pass before many sexual abuse survivors can even begin to confront the trauma they suffered as a child. Reasons for these delays vary and underscore why most victims cannot report the abuse within current legal time frames. For some, the abuser was a parent, relative or other trusted adult. Other victims blamed themselves and feared retribution if the abuse was revealed. For many, the trauma itself prevents them from coming forward earlier. As adults, victims may not even connect the assault to its long-lasting impact until they seek therapeutic help years later. If evidence is sufficient to prove criminal or civil liability, the mere passage of time should not foreclose sexual assault victims from seeking justice.
Abolition of the civil statute of limitations must logically accompany repeal of the criminal statute. To deny a victim the right to hold financially accountable the people responsible for the abuse protects no one but the abuser and those who enabled the abuse through negligence.
Massachusetts is out of step with the country and the region. Thirty-one states have no criminal statutes of limitation for certain sex offenses or abuse of children. Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island have eliminated statutes of limitations. Connecticut has eliminated them for Class A felony sexual assaults and through the victim’s 48th birthday. New Hampshire extends time limits until the victim reaches age 40. Clearly, Massachusetts is out of the mainstream and its dismal legal protection of children may be one of the many reasons child sex abuse has run rampant here.
Some raise the specter of “constitutional issues” as a reason to do nothing even though the Massachusetts legislation is narrowly drawn and contains no statutory reform that has not already survived judicial review elsewhere. States that strengthened their laws to protect children have demonstrated that these changes can be constitutional.
Some lawmakers support an “incremental approach” by excluding victims of incest, children molested after age 13 and victims who were not raped but subjected to other illegal touching or non-touching offenses. These proposals are based on false assumptions that younger children are more traumatized than teens; a child molested by a stranger is more traumatized than if he or she is molested by a family member; and children subjected to sexual penetration are more traumatized than those that were fondled or forced to pose for pornographic pictures.
Studies show that the trauma suffered by victims is not correlated to the frequency or brutality of the abuse experienced but rather to the length of time the abuse was concealed. Incest victims are among those who need our protection the most; and the more we learn about teen victims the better we understand the obstacles to their coming forward. Piecemeal legislation will not provide sufficient safeguards. If we are serious about stopping abuse, how can we create a caste system of victims where some abused children are worthy of protection, but others are not?
Every day that the Legislature fails to act, it fails to protect another group of children from the horrors of abuse. More than 130 state legislators support this legislation, along with the lieutenant governor, attorney general, the Governor’s Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, numerous district attorneys and a long list of child advocacy organizations. So what is the Legislature waiting for?
Predators are beating the clock under our current laws every day. Now in these final days of the legislative session, the countdown is on for legislators, too. Will they beat the clock and fail once gain to pass meaningful legislation to protect children?
Jetta Bernier is executive director of Mass. Citizens for Children and a member of the Coalition to Reform Sexual Abuse Laws in Mass. Jeffrey Dion is a senior attorney with the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C.