Law prof: Eliminating the statute of limitations in child abuse cases ‘will inevitably increase the possibility of fraudulent claims’
Q: What are the ramifications if the statute of limitations were eliminated in child sex-abuse cases in criminal proceedings?
A: The whole problem with the issue is that child sexual abuse is a hair-trigger issue in our society, and that fact has led to some real miscarriages of justice. That doesn’t mean that there really aren’t ugly things that happened to people who wait to report. Increasing or eliminating the statute of limitations might lead to more justice, but it also might increase more injustice. The question is how much injustice are we willing to tolerate to get more justice.
Q: What do you mean by more injustice?
A: These kinds of cases make people particularly anxious. I think when it comes to these cases, the worry is that, on one hand, memories are sometimes repressed. But it is also true that a person can be nudged toward remembering things that might not have occurred. Given that, people feel a statute of limitations is needed. It’s the only way a defendant has a chance to disprove such allegations. It’s impossible to find an alibi so long after the event is said to have occurred. The older the memories are, the fear is that it’s more brittle and more likely a person is to create mis-remembrances.
Q: What are the ramifications if the statute of limitations were eliminated in child sex-abuse cases in civil proceedings?
A: It will inevitably increase the possibility of fraudulent claims because of all the noise around the Sandusky case and the Catholic Church. It has raised the anxiety in these matters. A fraudulent claim may succeed because the jury is more sympathetic. Defendants may be more likely to settle quickly.
Q: Advocates say child abuse victims routinely don’t go to authorities for decades after the crime because they don’t feel empowered enough or out of the control of the abuser, often someone in a position of authority. Wouldn’t that be reason to extend the statute?
A: People understood this when they created the statute of limitations to extend to 30. In a society, we have to draw the line somewhere. We say 18-year-olds are fully adults for purposes of voting and becoming a criminal defendant. We say when you’re 21, you’re an adult if you want to drink. The Pennsylvania Legislature made a tough call and said, for the purposes of reporting child sex abuse, you can report it up until age 30. This recognizes that it’s tough to report — but by 30 many people are out from under the thumb of an authority figure, and we’ve given them much longer … [for] criminal liability and voting rights.