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A 'justice gap' for victims of child sex abuse

THE SEXUAL ABUSE of children has been aptly labeled ''a silent, violent epidemic" by the American Medical Association. While the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has shattered the silence, the truth is that those revelations reflect only part of a broader societal problem.

One in four girls and one in six boys have experienced some form of sexual abuse before age 18, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 80 percent of incidents are never reported to authorities. Massachusetts already recognizes that the nature of these crimes is so egregious and its impact so devastating that sexual offenders are the only class of criminals the state identifies on its website.

Effectively addressing this epidemic will require the active involvement of many sectors of society, including public health, law enforcement, and private citizens alike.

A survey conducted for the Massachusetts Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Partnership makes it clear that Massachusetts citizens are willing to take on these challenges. Ninety percent of those polled believe child sexual abuse is a serious problem, and 85 percent believe it can be prevented. Nearly half want to become more involved in ways to protect children. Two bills that would repeal the criminal and civil statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes are a step toward these ends.

Those who know someone who has been victimized have seen the emotional, physical, and financial toll childhood sexual abuse exacts. The journey that leads to healing is long -- often measured in decades, not in years. It can take one through the depths of addiction, depression, and other physical and mental hardships. Many survivors can find their way to hope and healing with the support of families, friends, and professionals.

However, not everyone makes it -- some lives are permanently damaged, and others take their own life as a last resort. Given the demands of such an arduous, personal journey, it is no wonder that it often takes victims half a lifetime or more before they can consider seeking justice in a court of law.

The current statute of limitations for these crimes ranges from three years for civil cases and up to 15 years for criminal cases. The clock starts ticking on the victim's 16th birthday. However, in a preponderance of cases, current law prevents victims from seeking justice in our legal system after age 22.

A study by advocate attorney Carmen Durso revealed that his clients came forward on average nearly 33 years after their abuse occurred -- at an average age of 45. Mental health and law enforcement professionals confirm this. The disparity between the time it takes for victims to come forward and the current statute of limitations represents a ''justice gap." Closing this gap is critical for victims. Moreover, it may also prevent the victimization of the most vulnerable citizens of our society by putting offenders on notice that they will not be allowed to continue offending with impunity.

Eliminating the statute of limitations would send the message that Massachusetts is joining other states, including Maine, in the fight to protect children. It would also promote greater accountability on the part of institutions that must work diligently to create sexual abuse free environments for the children they serve. It would help take serial offenders off the streets and away from the places where children live and play.

Eliminating the statute of limitations will not -- and should not -- lessen the legal protections of those accused. Prosecutors and plaintiff attorneys will still be required to make their case on the quality of evidence before a court of law. But it will level the playing field for victims by giving them the opportunity to seek justice and hold offenders accountable. Above all, it will reaffirm the right of every child to a safe and healthy childhood and of every adult to a life free from the devastating and costly aftermath of child sexual abuse.

Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, and John Mackey, retired police chief of Tewksbury, are members of the Coalition to Reform Sexual Abuse Laws in Massachusetts.

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