Two days after former House speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) indictment became public, a small group of sexual abuse survivors gathered at Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago. The group, made up of members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), was there say thank you to prosecutors for exposing Hastert’s alleged crimes.
It was also there to issue a distinct challenge to Illinois lawmakers.
One year after pushing state legislators to enact changes in the criminal statute of limitations – the time during which a person can be prosecuted for sex crimes involving minors -- sex abuse survivors and their advocates, some legal scholars and anti-rape activists are pushing Illinois and other states to go further. Much further.
They want to see Illinois and other states extend, eliminate or -- at the very least -- temporarily lift the often short time frames during which alleged victims have to report sex crimes and the system has to pursue these cases in criminal and civil court. And some of these same forces are now pushing Congress to use its ready weapon – federal funding – to incentivize states that do so. In late May, just hours before the charges against Hastert became public, retiring Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told a Nevada newspaper that he is seeking co-sponsors for just such a bill.
At first glance, the statute of limitation reform movement can seem like the kind of push for civil and criminal procedure reform with meaning to only a small subset of Americans involved in such cases. To others, it might seem like one of those causes so deep in the legislative weeds that rallying support will be difficult. And the reforms do have their critics.
Civil libertarians worry that extending criminal and civil statutes of limitation will lead to wholesale violations of the constitutional rights of the accused. Over time, memories fade, evidence disappears and witnesses and victims die, they say, making mistakes more likely. And large institutions such as the Catholic church have lobbied against the reforms in states around the country because of the damage that long-term criminal and civil culpability can do to reputations and church coffers.
But advocates of statute of limitations reform – a movement that has picked up considerable steam over the last decade – say that even as the nation’s understanding of sex crimes and their effects on victims has progressed, those arguments have helped both the legal system and culture to remain woefully offender-friendly and, in some ways, retrograde. Still, each time a name is added to the list of once well-regarded, seemingly wholesome and in some cases self-appointed arbiters of sexual morality -- the other big recent examples, of course, being Bill Cosby and Josh Duggar -- the details of state and federal laws that limit or prevent potential punishment also get pushed into the spotlight, Marci Hamilton, a law professor and statute of limitation reform movement expert at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law told me.
And by that measure, 2015 has already been quite the year.
In the wake of the string of allegations made against Cosby and revelations about reality TV-personality-turned-conservative-political-operative Duggar, terms like statute of limitations and, “mandatory reporter" no longer seem obscure. Instead, they feel closely connected to public safety.
("Mandatory reporters" are people -- most often doctors, nurses, teachers, funeral directors and mental health care professionals -- legally obligated to report suspected child sexual abuse to authorities. They became a major issue in the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State case in 2011.)
So far in 2015, 13 states have contemplated civil or criminal statutes of limitation reforms. Only a handful have moved to do so. Another 36 states and Guam have already done so, to varying degrees.
Advocates for the reforms, though, say some bills were essentially gutted before they were passed due to powerful lobbying efforts. In 2012, Colorado Catholic lawmakers who sponsored a statute of limitations reform bill were criticized from the pulpits of their own parishes before a measure in that state failed. And in New York, a measure to eliminate the state's criminal statute of limitation on sex crimes against children has passed the state Assembly four times but never reached the full state Senate for a vote because the bills faced serious opposition from Orthodox Jewish and Catholic groups. They warned that resulting criminal charges and civil law suits would force many religious schools, churches and synagogues to close.
Still, high profile cases do seem to spur all sorts of action.
Some legal experts, including Hamilton, have questioned Arkansas officals' decision to close the investigation into Duggar based on what they say is a faulty reading of that state's civil and criminal statutes of limitation on sex crimes involving minors.
In late May, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) signed a bill that that expands that state’s once four-year window to report an alleged rape or sexual assault against an adult to 20 years. Lawmakers cited concerns about the string of women who had accused Cosby of raping, drugging and/or sexually assaulting them during the comedian’s once-frequent visits to Las Vegas. One such woman even testified in front of state lawmakers and lobbied for criminal statute of limitation reforms.
The new Nevada law, much like those in other states, will not apply retroactively to Cosby or any others accused of long-ago sex crimes. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that no state law can do so when it comes to criminal matters.
But some states do come close to the line. Just last year, Illinois joined a small group of states that have completely eliminated the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex crimes against children if one of two conditions can be met; if there is physical evidence of the alleged crime or proof that a so-called mandatory reporter failed to do so, a criminal case can be brought at any time. But in most states, criminal law does not function this way, and in Illinois, that has so far meant that Hastert will not face sex-crime charges beyond the financial ones for which he was indicted.
That’s part of the reason that reforms which create temporary windows where the civil statutes of limitation are lifted – laws put in place in just four states so far -- have become so critical, David Clohessy, the executive director of the Chicago-based SNAP told me. Civil cases draw attention and often additional, sometimes even more recent, victims report their abuse to authorities, leading prosecutors to cases and evidence which they can sometimes prosecute. Even when that doesn’t happen, serial perpetrators are often exposed and because of this, removed from roles that give them access to new potential victims.
There's some evidence to back up Clohessy's claims.
In California, a temporary window during which the civil statute of limitation was lifted generated about 1,000 cases involving about 300 alleged perpetrators. And in Minnesota where a similar three-year window opened in 2013 has also produced a number of civil suits.
And it's done something else. On Friday, information obtained by prosecutors as a result of some of those suits led state prosecutors to indict the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on criminal charges related to the repeat “mishandling” of sex abuse complaints against a single priest and failure to root out other child sex abusers working for the church.
This was initially posted on Monday. We are re-upping it in light of Hastert's court appearance Tuesday.