From the editorial in today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser:
Children who are raped, sodomized and otherwise sexually abused must cope with the emotional and physical pain of these heinous acts for the rest of their lives. Just as there is no statute of limitations on the trauma they suffer, there should be no statute of limitations on bringing to justice the criminals who inflict this terror on Hawaii’s most vulnerable victims.
So we applaud the Hawaii Legislative Women’s Caucus’ continuing efforts to make it more difficult for pedophilic predators to get away with sex crimes against minors, and to hold accountable private employers and institutions that are proven culpable in the abuse. However, extending the window to file civil lawsuits in limited instances of past abuse, as bills pending in the Legislature seek to do, strikes us as a relatively minor response.
This important issue deserves a broader approach, especially in the Internet age, when the money to be made producing online child pornography for a sick global market heightens an insidious profit motive for criminals already inclined to exploit minors in this way.
It’s fair to say that American society has had its consciousness raised about childhood sexual abuse over the past several decades, as an abuse scandal engulfed the Roman Catholic Church. Other religious, educational and recreational organizations entrusted with children’s welfare also were found to have harbored predators in their ranks. Unthinkable crimes were uncovered and victims were finally heard, many after decades of silence. Yet, quite often, perpetrators escaped punishment, because the statute of limitations on the crimes had expired.
One legitimate response, including in Hawaii, has been to temporarily lift that time limit, although here that provision is limited to the filing of civil lawsuits, and only against the individuals directly involved and associated private entities proven negligent and therefore partly responsible. The state and its agencies are exempt, a glaring hypocrisy given that compulsory public schools, for just one example, also risk employing sexual predators.
About two dozen lawsuits were filed during the two-year window provided in Hawaii, which is set to expire on April 24. Now bills that would delay that expiration are generating intense debate at the Legislature. Familiar phrases are repeated in testimony from opponents of the proposed extension, notably that proving a long ago civil claim is difficult because with the passage of time, memories fade, witnesses die and evidence is lost or destroyed. That’s all true, but those obstacles are far more likely to impede the accuser than the accused. Remember, extending the time allowed to file a case does not lessen the burden of proof one iota — it simply gives victims time to come forward.
At any rate, focusing on civil claims, limited to individuals and private entities to boot, skirts on the margins of true justice.
What lawmakers should do is lift the statute of limitations on criminal charges against adults who commit sex crimes against children. This class of criminal runs a depressing gamut, from parents who sell their offspring into the sex trade, to adults in positions of authority — teachers, coaches, and yes, priests — who violate the trust of young people in their care.
Currently under Hawaii law, only first- and second-degree murder carry no statute of limitations. All other crimes have a shelf life.
The survivors of childhood sexual abuse live with this fundamental injustice every day. That most of them grow up and manage to cope, diminished but not broken, is no excuse for not punishing their abusers. True justice would be served with a criminal conviction, and a jail sentence. Even a successful civil lawsuit is small solace compared to putting a tormenter behind bars.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” goes the legal maxim, generally proclaimed on behalf of defendants. But the idea applies to victims seeking justice, too, although there’s a different way to express it: “Better late than never.”