By Cathleen Palm
On Aug. 25, 1991, I started the transition from child victim to adult survivor of child sexual abuse. Just after my 22nd birthday, I walked into my hometown police station to disclose my sexual abuse and name the perpetrator — a trusted family friend.
Like many survivors, I was pushed — without warning or a sufficient safety net — into confronting this abuse. An event in college, when I was a resident assistant, unexpectedly triggered painful memories and left me immobilized. In the course of disclosing the abuse to family and close family friends, I discovered that many people had strong suspicions — and some even direct knowledge — of the abuse. Coming to terms with the role silence played in perpetuating the abuse was not easy.
Law enforcement’s initial reaction to my 1991 disclosure was discouraging. I second-guessed myself, but tried to remember that there already were too many victims. Each of us had been sexually assaulted in different years, but all at the hands of the same perpetrator. The threat still posed to younger victims, and the perpetrator’s leadership position at a state-funded institution, provided urgency.
I met with supportive investigators from the district attorney’s office. I learned from those who worked with children and youth that Pennsylvania rigidly defines a perpetrator of child abuse, tying their hands even as it related to the younger victims.
It didn’t take long to understand that the law does have winners and losers, and the shorter stick is most often drawn by the child victim.
In 1991, state law required that a civil action be filed before the victim reached the age of 20, and prosecution generally was required to begin within five years from the time of the abuse.
Given the expired statute of limitations, law enforcement could not file criminal charges and I was unable to file a civil suit, so stopping the cycle now fell to younger children and their parents. However, the parents opted against working with investigators, some citing the trauma the children would endure. Others worried how jobs would be affected, given their employment at the same institution as the perpetrator.
Faced with such legal dead ends, I turned instead to personal healing.
Recently, however, a conversation with a fellow survivor, who had also been faced with expired statute of limitations, has had me revisiting my own experiences. She still lives, works, and raises children in the shadow of this community “nice guy” — the man who abused us. Even as she works to heal, she is relentless in doing her part to keep a watchful eye on her community’s children.
Child sexual abuse has lifelong consequences. Survivors are committed to prevention, and work to protect victimized children when laws, including arbitrary statutes of limitations, fall short.
It didn’t take long to understand that the law does have winners and losers. In 2002, state law changed. Going forward, civil actions by child-abuse victims could be filed until a victim’s 30th birthday, and the criminal statute was extended until the victim turns 50. Currently, legislation has been introduced to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations and to extend the civil one to age 50.
State Reps. Louise Bishop and Michael McGeehan, both Philadelphia Democrats, are among the leaders seeking reforms, including the enactment of a temporary, retroactive civil window — something few other states have passed.
This “window” would permit victims for whom the statute of limitations have expired to pursue a civil action against their abuser within a designated two-year period. The idea is controversial, and it’s an uphill battle, partially because policymakers and the public haven’t understood that, prior to 2002, Pennsylvania’s statutes of limitations on pursuing child abusers were extremely restrictive.
As a consequence, perpetrators were free to pursue other victims. Some may well still be abusing children today.
Like child sexual abuse itself, the debate on the civil-window legislation has been ugly, manipulative, and deeply wounding.
Opponents of the window cite it as unconstitutional and ripe for false claims. They suggest that the only beneficiaries would be people who have been victimized by someone affiliated with the Catholic Church. Leaders in the state have used obscure procedural moves to deny debate on the issue, let alone allow votes.
Meanwhile, supporters routinely add window-related amendments to other child-protection bills, jeopardizing those compelling pieces of legislation.
Throughout this back and forth, many survivors, including myself, have stayed silent.
Lately, however, I have been reminded that silence by others didn’t serve me well as a victimized child.
So now I’m joining the chorus of survivors who are urging Pennsylvania lawmakers to stop stalling on statute of limitation reform. Don’t hold these measures or other equally important child protection bills hostage in committee or on the House calendar.. The benefits and challenges of child protection legislation, including related to the civil window, deserve to be publicly debated by state lawmakers, , followed by an up-or-down vote.
Realizing meaningful and sustained change to prevent and respond to child abuse requires that the best interests of children — not political gamesmanship — be Harrisburg’s priority.
Cathleen Palm writes from Berks County. Readers may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.