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On Tuesday, the Illinois attorney general issued a report documenting the horrifying extent of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy members in the state. The report found that nearly 2,000 children had been abused by more than 450 clergy members between 1950 and 2019.
“It is my hope that this report will shine light both on those who violated their positions of power and trust to abuse innocent children, and on the men in church leadership who covered up that abuse,” Attorney General Kwame Raoul said of the report. But, he acknowledged, many of the perpetrators would never be held accountable because of the state’s statute of limitations on such crimes.
The report is a sickening reminder of the extent of sexual abuse of children, and of the need to ensure that survivors of this abuse are heard, and that opportunities for justice are not blocked by arbitrary timetables.
Two years ago, Maine lawmakers and Gov. Janet Mills eliminated a statute of limitations on civil claims of child sex abuse. Several lawsuits, including one against the Catholic diocese of Maine, were soon filed.
A new bill would build on this important change. The state already has no statute of limitations in criminal cases on the most serious sex crimes against children. LD 1790 would extend the statute of limitations repeal to all sex offenses in the state’s criminal code and to all victims under age 18, rather than just those under 16.
These are important changes.
Simply put, the trauma of sexual assault has no statute of limitations. Neither should avenues for justice and healing for the survivors of these crimes, no matter when they happened.
About 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18, typically by a family member or family friend. Only about a third speak out about the abuse.
The average age when child victims of sex abuse speak out is 52, Michael Bigos, a member of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, told Maine lawmakers in 2021.
“It is cruel to expect victims to come forward on an arbitrary timetable set by the state, and it is also unrealistic,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said in testimony earlier this month. He cited statistics showing that most child sexual abuse is unreported.
“It’s a simple proposition, victims deserve justice in both criminal and civil venues,” he added. “No one should be able to perpetrate this evil and simply walk away, confident that time is on their side – and as we sit here, time is indeed, on their side.”
In April, four Penobscot Nation men sued Maine’s Catholic diocese alleging abuse when they were children. Numerous women have also sued the diocese saying they were abused as young girls by a priest in Portland. These lawsuits came after the 2021 law change removing the statute of limitation for civil cases.
Kurt Francis of Indian Island said he learned about the law change after reading a BDN article about it. “It was hard to read,” he said last month. “Everything came back to me and I felt a ton of weight on me. I talked to [the lawyer handling the case] and that weight just lifted off of me.”
Francis said he also talked to his childhood friends and realized he was not the only victim, which he had not understood before speaking with lawyers.
“I know there are more victims on Indian Island,” he said. “I hope they will come forward and not be too ashamed to do that.”
No one can erase the harm done by this abuse, but giving more power to survivors, and taking the shield of time away from perpetrators, is a huge step toward justice.