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Statutes of Limitations and Victims of Sexual Abuse

Statutes of Limitations and Victims of Sexual Abuse

Statute of limitations
gavel smashing clock and scattering it – time concept – vector

Statutes of limitations, whether concerning a criminal or civil matter, are there to protect the defendant.  In civil cases, they are legal boundaries that limit the time period in which someone can bring a  claim against another person, company or legal entity.  In criminal matters, they protect a prospective defendant from prosecutions that go beyond the legal time limit required by law.  These statutes of limitations are set by the legislative branch of government and are usually clear cut except for instances provided by the statute.  They are designed to ensure that the person bringing the legal cause of action acts in a diligent and timely fashion and allows the defendant an opportunity to disprove the claim.

So far, this seems pretty straightforward and reasonable.   In most civil and criminal matters, the presence of a statute of limitations is reasonable and both parties can agree that such a time limit is equitable and designed to ensure justice, or at least an equal playing field.

But what happens if the circumstances of a particular case are such that the aggrieved party (the one who could bring a lawsuit) is somehow prevented from knowing that they have a potential case?  I’m not talking about ignorance of the law but a case in which the injured party has no knowledge that they’ve been injured or wronged due to circumstances beyond their control?  This scenario happens frequently in cases of childhood sexual abuse.  The abuse occurs at a young age and the child is so traumatized he doesn’t recall the incident(s) until well into adulthood.  Mental health professionals refer to this as traumatic amnesia or repressed memory.  The adult, sexually abused as a child, experiences some triggering event or memory that brings the abuse back into the conscious realm.

The phenomenon of traumatic amnesia has been noted in a variety of populations over the last century, including war veterans, Holocaust survivors, and survivors of natural disasters. By the mid-1980s, a significant body of research indicated that many adult survivors of child sexual abuse also suffer from traumatic amnesia. While some people always remember having been abused, others do not remember anything about their experiences for many years, while others recall some but not all of the details of their abuse.

Traumatic amnesia can be a major obstacle to the prosecution of child sexual abuse. Prior to the 1980s, survivors were often unable to pursue civil charges, because the crime had occurred so long previously that they were not permitted to sue by law. In criminal cases, defendants often claimed that adult survivors were unreliable witnesses because they had not reported the abuse until years or decades later.

By the late 1980s, lawyers argued that the limitation period (or the “statute of limitations”) for child sex offenses should be extended in cases where a complainant has suffered from traumatic amnesia. Parents accused of sexual abuse sought defence lawyers and psychological experts to help defend against these claims. A new concept, “False Memory Syndrome”, was created to explain delayed memories of sexual abuse in court.

The debate on “recovered memories” and “false memories” dominated the media coverage of child abuse for much of the 1990s. In the media, proponents of the “false memory” position argued that there was no evidence for traumatic amnesia, and that “recovered memories” of sexual abuse were unreliable, and often the product of overly zealous therapists, and hysterical, malicious or confabulating?> women. Since then, this debate has become somewhat less heated, with science increasingly affirming the existence of traumatic amnesia and the reliability of “recovered memories”.

The psychological effects of sexual abuse on victims has called into question of statutes of limitations in cases of trauma such as sexual abuse.  Not surprisingly, institutions like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America have fought against any extension or abolition of the statute of limitations in these cases.  In most cases, it’s their best defense.  Rigid statutes of limitations also discourages other victims from coming forward.  But is that justice? Does that take into account the unique circumstances involving sexual abuse of children or prevent further abuse from happening?

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