When a crime is committed against a person, such as a robbery or identity theft, he or she can choose how and when to press charges. Why should it be any different for survivors of sexual assault?
In some states, when a sexual assault takes place, there is a limited time period in which the perpetrator can be prosecuted for the crime. The time period, set by a statute of limitation is a ticking clock that prevents some survivors from seeking justice against their abusers. Recognizing the absurdity of statutes of limitations, the state of Illinois recently joined 36 other states in eliminating such statutes for all felony sexual assault crimes against children.
Statutes of limitations fail to acknowledge that most childhood sexual abuse survivors need time to heal before engaging with the court process. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan acknowledged the difficulty survivors have in coming forward right after a traumatic experience: “Sex crimes against children are a horribly tragic violation of trust that can take a lifetime to recover from…This new law will ensure that survivors are provided with the time they need to heal and seek justice” (WTTW).
So why do we have these statutes? Statutes of limitation were implemented to prevent convictions based on testimony of events that happened long ago. Yet recent advances in DNA evidence and technology provide new opportunities for justice regardless of the timeframe of the assault. As the sexual violence prevention organization RAINN notes, “Society also has come to understand more about the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of sexual violence and the reasons why a victim may not immediately report the crime” (2017).
What must be understood is that up to one-third of children who are sexually abused have little to no recollection of the event in the short term, but often recapture memories much later in life (van der Kolk, 2015). In fact, up to 80 percent of child survivors do not even disclose the event until well into adulthood (NIH, 2016). The moving film Spotlight depicts how clergy sex abuse survivors recovered memories decades after the assaults took place. Statutes of limitations have done a double disservice to these victims—they prevented individuals from seeking justice and kept pedophile priests in the pulpit.
It is time for America’s remaining 14 states to strike from the books the statutes of limitations for all sexual assault crimes against children. It is time to leave it to the courts to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to prosecute a case rather than depend on an arbitrary ticking clock. And it is time for survivors who have been shut out from justice to have the same methods of redress as other victims of crime.