If you feel a sense of comfort that today abusers of children seem to be reported sooner, that school authorities appear more aware, that teachers report signs earlier or that the community is more willing to speak up, listen: that comfort is false. And it blinds us to a dangerous loophole.
Yes, we read news of abusers arrested in recent incidents. Yes, we read articles of adult survivors finding the courage now to speak up about their abuse as a child. What we don’t hear about is the huge gap in between: known abusers teach and coach and counsel children right now, but can’t be charged or investigated. Previous victims know who they are. In some cases even the DA or the press knows who they are. But the public doesn’t, even if they are teaching children. The same is true in religious organizations, camps, youth-oriented sports and even Hollywood. They know of perps in plain sight.
These are not abusers yet to be discovered — many have a long swath of victims. The shameful loophole is carved out each time the crimes are unaddressed and just old enough to disable police, the DA and criminal charges. Worse, the delay rewards the institution – the administrators at a school, church or agency – with no accountability despite volumes of irrefutable prior alerts. Their silence when, perversely, prompt action could have had the most benefit, buys their own immunity at the expense of future victims.
In New York State, for example, once a child sexual abuse crime is three years past, victims cannot confront the institution, even where it ignored or buried numerous reports. After five years, the abuser cannot be charged and investigations are stalled. The consequences are stunning. The abuser can then continue with little risk, the organization isn’t required to answer for its enabling of abuse, and the victim is left to shoulder further burden when the press is the only path remaining. Consider the plight of the Cosby victims who came forward. Or recall the many survivors among schoolmates at Horace Mann. Now consider any teacher, coach or religious official less famous who remains in place, unknown to his or her community – but painfully known to survivors.
We need to fix the role institutions play in sexual abuse. Prevention fails in three ways:
Schools and organizations intimidate victims who report abuse and cover up accounts. Many do not alert authorities of repeated reports. The result is they multiply abuse and add victims. The justice system must support victims – not allow abusers and those who enable them to be unaccountable.
Eliminating the statute of limitations is vital. But if that is all we do, it will help when survivors speak up in years ahead – it won’t help identify perps in plain sight now. There is still a massive backlog of cases where abuse is known, the crimes are beyond the statute, but the abuser is still working with kids.
The Child Victims Act includes a year-long window designed to resolve this very loophole during which older claims can be adjudicated in civil court. Several states have enacted the window. In California, one clear effect is hundreds of abusers working with children were revealed and addressed. Perps in plain sight now were fairly dealt with – cleared or removed. The purpose is safety, not compensation, for most survivors.
In NY, the Catholic Church spends huge sums to block the removal of the loophole, despite the clear risk to the community (especially odious with the church’s own sordid history of hidden abusers). The pretext they point to is bankruptcy though the track record says that hasn’t happened. And the idea that courts get clogged is also disproved. Worse, they spread fear of bogus claims when research shows that is exceedingly rare. Consider that the burden of proof is first on the plaintiff and add that no culpability attaches unless the institution received and ignored clear reports. Further, the shame, pain and struggle to endure legal action for sexual abuse falls so hard on survivors that sadly, many don’t have the stamina or strength.
The retroactive window solves the backlog, deals with known abusers, offers some healing to survivors, has precedent, works in other states, and finally adds needed relief beyond the removal of SOLs. Let’s unburden all our communities from an ugly shadow in sexual abuse past and present. Enable our schools and each of us to speak openly, so that the message is clear to any child watching what we do: we believe him or her, we want to help, and we want to know and to heal.
Why do we permit institutions to protect predators and create massive abuse?
The SOLs nationwide have blocked truth and justice for victims:
We expect politicians to deliver what they promise, especially for the safety of children:
The SOL in NY is used by institutions to cover up the truth, silence victims and enable abusers: