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Clergy Sex Abuse Survivors and Family May Still Get Their Day in Court

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Illinois Sexual Abuse Case Results in Minimal Punishment Due to Statute of Limitations

Illinois lawmakers may soon vote to eliminate the state’s statute of limitations on child sex abuse crimes. The move comes in response to the 15-month sentence given last month to former Illinois House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Although Hastert admitted molesting teenage boys he coached decades ago, the statute of limitations had run on those crimes. Hastert could only be sentenced for a financial crime related to his efforts to pay one of his victims millions of dollars in hush money to cover up the crime.

In Hastert’s case, Scott Cross told a Chicago federal courtroom last month what he called “his darkest secret”: that Hastert, his high school wrestling coach, had molested him in 1979. It was a secret Cross held for 36 years.

The federal judge in the case expressed frustration that he could only sentence the former House speaker for providing hush money payments because the statute of limitations. “I am also frustrated,” Chicago U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said after Hastert’s sentencing hearing. “I wish Mr. Hastert had been called on the carpet in 1968, and we’d all be better for it.”

Unlike in the 1960s and ’70s when Hastert sexually abused his victims, Illinois now allows victims of child sexual abuse to bring charges 20 years after they turn 18. But even that’s not enough time, according to professionals who treat, counsel and advocate for survivors of sex abuse.

The Psychology of Sexual Abuse Prevents Victims from Speaking Out 

Polly Poskin of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault says people who are abused as children and adolescents find it difficult to speak out because their abuser is often someone they know and trust and who is also likely to be respected in the community. As children are brought up to trust and respect adults, so the dynamics of the situation can be difficult to understand. “That is the primary reason victims do not report — they won’t be believed,” she says.

Poskin says victims often struggle for years to understand what happened to them and why, and she says many blame themselves and feel pain, shame and guilt. “So often times they suffer in silence,” she says. Poskin says it can takes decades for victims to come to terms with the abuse and even longer to report it. Often times when they do make the report years later, they find out then that the statute of limitations on the crime or civil case has already run out. This can be devastating.

Some States Recognize the Need for a Special Statute of Limitations- Michigan is Not One of Them

Reporting by a victim of childhood sexual abuse may result in criminal charges, conviction and punishment (i.e. time in prison). A victim may also have a claim for civil damages for the breach of a position of trust and the pain, suffering and mental distress that results from sexual abuse. There are statutes of limitations for both civil and criminal cases, and I believe they should be extended or eliminated for both types of cases.

By giving them until age 38 to come forward, Illinois is one of the better states for survivors of child sex abuse. Legal experts advocate for completely eliminating statutes of limitations for sex abuse, which she says only Delaware and Minnesota have done.

On the other end of the spectrum are Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi and New York, which give victims just three to five years to come forward.  States’ time limits can vary based on whether it’s a criminal or civil case, and they can differ depending on the type of abusive conduct.

Nonetheless, many states revised statutes of limitations after the Catholic church sex abuse scandals, and now there are new proposals to lengthen or eliminate time constraints for reporting child sex abuse in several states, including Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Minnesota recently lifted its statute of limitations and opened a window for people to file civil lawsuits for past abuse.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clergy or another adult they trusted should not give up even if the statute of limitations has run on their civil or criminal case. There is a trend toward eliminating and lengthening the statute of limitations for these injustices. I urge victims to have faith and not give up, this issue is too important, and they may one day have their day in court.

Pope Calls for Justice- We Should Too

Last fall on a tour of the U.S., Pope Francis said:  “The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors cannot be kept secret any longer. I commit myself to the zealous watchfulness of the church to protect minors, and I promise that all those responsible will be held accountable.” With the Pope’s words, and patience and persistence from victims, their families, advocates and supporters, I believe that Michigan will one day recognize that this injustice should be brought to light.

For survivors, their families, and others passionate about this issue, make a call or write a letter or e-mail to your State politicians and urge them to reconsider the statute of limitations for these heinous crimes.  I will do whatever I can to push for an elimination of the statute of limitations in Michigan. This issue is too important, and justice calls for it. With patience and persistence, I hope that one day our State will stop protecting perpetrators.