Op-Ed published in the Morning Call
By David Freed
It’s a crime that strikes the young and the innocent. It’s a crime that I have prosecuted too often, and not often enough. Childhood sexual abuse is horrifically common, yet many times the crime goes unreported for years – even decades – after the crime is committed. Sometimes it’s never reported at all.
For the past eight months, childhood sexual abuse has made front-page national news on a daily basis because of the tragedy brought to light at our Penn State University.
Thousands of stories have been written and reported about the events in State College, but there are thousands more stories across our commonwealth that walk our streets, pass us by each day.
Stories of the victims, afraid and embarrassed.
Stories of the abusers, walking free, unafraid to harm again.
Stories of communities, unconvinced, unaffected — not taking notice.
If anything positive can be gleaned from the catastrophe in Centre County, it’s that a much brighter light has been shone on this all-too-common, all-too-silent crime.
It has provided law enforcement, families, civic and political leaders with a renewed opportunity to address the problem and take stock of Pennsylvania’s childhood sexual abuse statutes. It’s hopefully given victims a newfound courage to break their silence.
If the Sandusky verdict tells us anything, it tells us just how important the victims were to the outcome of the case. Without the willing cooperation, bravery and resolve of the victims there would be no case.
We have learned over the last several months that our focus must be on the voice of the child — and no child’s voice should be silenced because a confined period of time has passed.
An incredibly troubling problem in Pennsylvania involves child sex-abuse cases that cannot be brought since the statute of limitations has expired. These are innocent men and women who were raped or sexually abused as children, who will never have the opportunity to take the next necessary step in their healing process.
Statute of limitations constraints are particularly problematic for victims of child sexual abuse since many children take years before they are psychologically and emotionally prepared to confront their abusers.
While the legal procedure for substantiating a crime that happened 10, 20 or even 30 years prior can be difficult, this should not preclude or deny a victim from coming forward to seek justice. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials are fully capable of reviewing these cases no matter when they happened.
The sad truth is that such abusers may only be brought to justice if the criminal abuses another victim and that child comes forward.
That is why Pennsylvania must eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child abuse cases.
Organizations like the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, Justice4PAKids and others are actively seeking changes to Pennsylvania’s current statute of limitations laws.
House Bill 2488, which abolishes the age limit requirement for reporting child sexual abuses cases, recently made it through Judiciary Committee. Amended versions of Democratic House Bills 832 and 878 also recently made it out of committee. As amended, the bills now collectively eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases, raise the statute from age 30 to age 50 for civil cases and cap the percentage a lawyer can collect in successful suits.
While this legislation is not perfect, it is a step in the right direction. These important pieces of legislation represent reasonable and thoughtful progress toward prosecuting the sexual abusers who roam our streets, free to harm another child and protecting the rights of the brave adults who were tormented as children.
I support all three of these bills, as amended, and I encourage the Legislature to act swiftly to pass them.
Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens should not have to wait until after 2013 for a change of statute. That’s not politics; it’s simply doing what is right.
David Freed is Cumberland County district attorney and a candidate for state attorney general.
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