Sexual predators who abuse children are a scourge on society. They should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. It is, however, equally wrong to treat tragedy that is childhood sexual abuse as a smoke screen for weakening our legal system.
History has proven that we as a society are all guilty of not being vigilant enough when it comes to child sexual abuse. However, we should not let ourselves be manipulated into accepting a weakened judicial system as a collective conscience-cleansing exercise. It is all of our responsibilities to take action to stop the sexual abuse of children, and passing that responsibility off to the courts is not going to make the issue magically disappear. What it will do is drain resources away from the good services churches, charities, schools, daycare centers, and other organizations provide children, and funnel that money to attorneys.
Under current law, victims of abuse have two avenues for seeking justice – one criminal and one civil. Criminal claims, which exist to punish the perpetrator, can be brought at any time in the future. Civil claims, which provide monetary compensation to the victim, must be brought within two years of the time a person realizes that they have been injured by sexual abuse (no matter how many years ago that abuse occurred).
Advocates maintain that the two year statute of limitations on civil claims is not long enough. Currently introduced legislation would eliminate the statute of limitations, and the Star Ledger editorial board suggests another proposal limiting the period to 30 years is in the works. However, the suggestion that “no victim should be put on a clock” is simply unreasonable.
Statutes of limitations exist because justice demands them. They aid in the search for truth because they encourage claims to be brought while the best evidence is available. As a result, they ensure not only that actual culprits are more likely to be held accountable, they also help prevent the injustice of having the wrong party held responsible. Without such limits, witnesses and records may be long gone before trial.
Elimination of the statute of limitations would be particularly difficult on organizations, which, under currently proposed legislation, would be liable if they employed an abuser. And yet the reality is that these crimes are typically committed by individuals, often without any knowledge on the part of their employers. Therefore, there is likely to be very little documentary evidence that would allow a group to mount an effective defense.
While an individual defendant can at least testify to personal knowledge, an institution that is sued decades after an alleged incident is unlikely to have anyone still on staff able to testify in its defense. The result is that these cases will never see the courtroom, but instead will end in forced settlements, draining the coffers of organizations that provided needed services and programming to children across the state, and handing it over to the attorneys who will bring these cases.
Moreover, the unintended consequences of this bill will be significant. Individuals who would like to take leadership roles in kids’ camps and other organizations that benefit children in their community would be wise to think twice, as they would potentially be assuming a lifelong liability because this bill extends liability to officers and trustees. And the cost of insuring against such open-ended liability is likely to be cost-prohibitive to the organizations running these valuable community programs.
Most manifestly unjust, the legislation that has been introduced on this issue also revives claims that have been previously dismissed by a court as untimely under our existing statute of limitations. This is such a radical idea that nobody has any realistic estimate of what its impact and repercussions will be.
No one wants to deny victims a recovery to which they are entitled, but justice is about more than ensuring a payout from deep pockets. It is about ensuring that the appropriate individuals are held accountable, not simply the ones who can pay. The criminal system and our current civil system do a commendable job with this so long as we as a society don’t wash our hands of the responsibility of taking claims about the sexual abuse of children seriously. Legislation setting the statute of limitations at 30 years, or eliminating it entirely would encourage the opposite – the pursuit of profitable payouts, and a sense that the courts have things covered so it is not my responsibility to pay attention to this.