Is the Clock Really Ticking on Child Sexual Assault?

With all of the sexual assaults on children that are in the news (especially Jerry Sandusky and former Syracuse Coach Bernie Fine), many observers are calling for an outright abolition of a Statute of Limitations (SOL) for sex crimes including child rape. The statutes of limitations are very important, especially in view of these two cases where the allegations themselves appear to go back several decades.

While not as ill-informed as the one attorney pundit who called into a talk-radio station to predict that both sexual assault cases would be handled as RICO prosecutions (side note, do not hire this guy since RICO cases require proof of a criminal enterprise, structure and organization, a pattern of racketeering activity and the commission of at least two predicate acts), opinions calling for an across-the-board elimination of the SOL in these cases are nothing but knee-jerk reactions to a situation that, for the most part, has already been addressed in many states including the two in question.

For example, in Pennsylvania the ongoing Pennsylvania State University investigations are already subject to a statutory amendment of the statute of limitations for child sex assault cases that allows charges to be brought up until the alleged child victim’s 50th birthday. New York is even more accommodating because the statute of limitations no longer applies to first degree rape, first degree criminal sexual acts, and first degree "course of criminal conduct against a child" (because the old statute of limitations was in place when the alleged conduct occurred, charges can not be brought against Bernie Fine using this new statute of limitations). Moreover, for all other offenses involving sexual acts committed in NY on a child under 18, the applicable statute of limitations does not start running until the child turns 18 and/or the case was first reported to law enforcement authorities. (Here in MA, the statute of limitations for child sex cases is 27 years plus the number of years between when the alleged assault occurred and the date the alleged victim turned 16.)

To be sure, many states still do have the standard 5 yrs statute of limitations for allegations involving sexual assaults against adults (although even there, an increasing number of states have recently adopted DNA exceptions). Still, the point is that when it comes to child sexual assault cases, most states already have built-in statute of limitations exceptions in deference to such factors as Delayed Reporting, Repressed/Suppressed Memory, Adult-authority and Care-taker/Stockholm syndrome.

While designed and conceived to protect the rights and sensitivities of innocent children, we cannot lose sight of the parallel rights of any accused who is not only presumed innocent as a matter of Constitutional Law but who maintains both the absolute right to confront his accuser as well as the right to be notified/apprised not just about the specific nature of the allegations against him or her but also when and where the alleged conduct supposedly happened. Like it or not, statutes of limitations are meant to help protect these fundamental rights especially when, God forbid, any of us might be confronted with unfounded accusations from long ago.