Effective last month, Georgia joins a small list of states (California, Hawaii, Delaware and Minnesota) to pass special laws or civil windows which open specific time periods for those whose child molestation lawsuits were previously barred by the statute of limitations. This is due in large part to increased media attention on several high profile child sexual abuse cases, including the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and several school sex abuse scandals.
Several years ago, the Delaware legislature passed a special law opening a civil window for child molestation victims whose civil cases were out of time. As a result of that special law, one of Laffey, Bucci & Kent’s clients succeeded in his lawsuit against a state court judge who was still on the bench. The client filed his civil lawsuit because the criminal statute of limitations barred any criminal prosecution. Ultimately, the case was successful; the judge admitted to the abuse. He was removed from the bench and disbarred. Had it not been for the client’s bravery and that special window, it’s very likely the judge would still be a member of the Delaware judiciary.
Statute of Limitations Reform is Needed to Tackle the Unique Problem of Child Molestation
Child sex abuse survivors need time to process the abuse in order to take action.
Child sexual abuse results in very real shift in the victim’s identity, thought process and self-esteem. Sexual predators hold great power over their victims. In the vast majority of cases, predators establish a normal relationship with their victims. Oftentimes, predators are family friends or people in a position of power, i.e., priests, teachers, coaches, etc. This dynamic explains why it often takes decades for a survivor of child molestation to even become cognizant of the abuse, much less take any legal action. That’s why statute of limitations reform is so important. The case involving the Delaware judge highlights the utility of special civil windows—oftentimes predators are out of reach of both the criminal and civil statute of limitations.
Criminal statute of limitations laws cannot be retroactive.
In order for criminal charges to be pursued in a child sex abuse case, the date of the conduct must fall within the given state’s statute of limitations that were in effect on the date the conduct occurred. For example, for a crime committed on January 1, 1985, the statute of limitations laws in effect on January 1, 1985 apply, not the laws in effect on January 1, 1975 or January 1, 1995.
Criminal statute of limitations laws can certainly be amended, but they cannot be retroactive. This is due to constitutional guarantees. This means that criminal statute of limitations law amendments apply only to criminal conduct which occurs on and after the date the law is passed. Such amendments cannot apply to conduct which occurred before the date the law is passed.
This aspect of criminal law highlights why civil windows are so important. Civil windows can help those who find the doors to the criminal justice system slammed in their faces.
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