Editorial: Abuse victims don’t deserve deadlines

After all they’ve been through, sexual assault victims shouldn’t have to worry about deadlines.

With Vice President Joe Biden appearing at Pitt this morning to discuss the It’s On Us campaign, helping sexual assault victims should be at the forefront of our minds. Two hours away from where Biden will speak, hundreds of people continue to suffer the effects of sexual abuse a grand jury decided was perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

While the public rallies behind the victims, our legal system is failing them. It is likely that no one will face abuse charges, in many cases because the statute of limitations for reporting child sexual abuse against the clergy has expired.

Bills moving through our legislature aim to eliminate that barrier, and they are long overdue in a state continually rocked by child abuse scandals.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to review a bill that would, from this point on, remove all time limits for filing civil or criminal suits relating to child sexual abuse. Another would allow adults to retroactively file suits, even if they are beyond existing age limits.

According to current Pennsylvania law, victims of child sexual assault can only file civil lawsuits for child sexual abuse until they are 30 years old and can pursue criminal charges until they turn 50.

But these restrictions only work under the assumption that people come to terms with abuse at a somewhat uniform time, which is factually incorrect.  Children often repress instances of abuse or are unable to understand that they have been assaulted at all. Deep into adulthood, victims may remain unaware of the effects that their experiences have had on their lives.

Even if a victim does know they have suffered from abuse, that doesn’t mean they are willing or able to confront the issue. Those who speak out must overcome shame, confusion, fear and denial.

Realizing that they were victimized can lead to feelings of weakness or embarrassment that can keep a person from coming forward. Victims are also vulnerable to hostile backlash and accusations that they are lying — especially in cases involving religious officials.

We’ve known these psychological realities for years, and we cannot maintain a system that does not account for them.

Being unaware or incapable of expressing what has happened to you shouldn’t invalidate your claim to justice. Statutes of limitations make sense when someone is immediately aware of what happened to them, and there are no social ramifications for speaking out. If you slip and break your arm in front of a store because the owner negligently left snow uncleared, it doesn’t make much sense to let you sue that person a decade later when you could have confronted it immediately.

But sexual assault is not like minor personal injury claims or theft. Abuse can and does ruin lives without anyone knowing it.

California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii and Minnesota have all passed laws similar to what our state is now considering. Pennsylvania has experienced too many of these scandals — in Philadelphia, at Penn State and now in Altoona — to continue with such an insufficient system.

So after you listen to Biden speak on a national issue, go out and call your state representative to support the bills in our backyard.

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