Every law begins with someone’s personal experience, and criminal laws stem from some of the most painful ones. The Iowa Legislature this year is considering two bills related to crimes against children. But the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate view the two through somewhat different lenses.
H.F. 2253, inspired by the abduction and killing of Kathlynn Shepard, would elevate the severity of kidnapping a child of 15 or younger and remove the ability of someone convicted of violent or sexual acts against children to earn time off for good behavior. The man who abducted Shepard and later killed himself was a convicted sex offender who had been released early from prison.
S.F. 2109 would increase the statute of limitations for filing sex abuse charges to 25 years after child victims become adults, or three years after a DNA identification. Civil suits could be brought up to 25 years after the victim discovered a relationship between the abuse and the injury. It’s inspired by the experiences of Des Moines’ John Johnson, who was one of seven 14- and 15-year-old boys allegedly abused after being plied with alcohol by a pastor.
Iowa’s statute of limitations is 10 years after the accuser turns 18. In civil suits, it can be four years after repressed memories surface.
But Johnson, 44, said he had repressed most memories until his sons, now 9 and 15, hit puberty. He started having nightmares involving the church and became fiercely protective of his kids. Memories can be delayed, and children may not make the connections until a triggering event late in life.
Thirty-four states have eliminated statutes of limitation for certain sex crimes, according to a Cardozo School of Law professor. But the Iowa bill faces an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled House, where two years ago, it didn’t even get onto the floor for debate.
When the actions of Johnson’s pastor were first exposed, he says, the church’s senior pastor persuaded everyone he would handle the situation — which meant dispatching the pastor to an out-of-state mental hospital and offering to counsel the boys individually. Johnson’s parents never pressed for criminal charges because they were “brainwashed” and he didn’t want to testify, Johnson says. Then it turned out there had been a police report against the pastor from another state that was hushed up. Eventually the man took a plea deal for misdemeanor sexual assault, but “he never even completed the probation or community service.”
Johnson was blocked from suing under the repressed-memory provision because a report showed he had been interviewed by police at age 15 or 16 — an event he doesn’t even remember. He says he has since suffered from anxiety, depression, guilt and an inability to concentrate. “When I was 16, I didn’t know I had any of these damages,” he said. Though he’s had therapy, “I can’t afford the amount of therapy it would take to figure all this out.”
This bill wouldn’t help Johnson. But he’s sharing his story in hopes that some sex offenders who are still harming children might be stopped. “Predators don’t get better; they get worse,” he said.
But Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, is disparaging of survivors seeking to reopen cases much later. “That person running around while you were just biding your time should have been brought forward sooner,” Baltimore said. Such attitudes make adult survivors reluctant to lobby for bills. Johnson contacted four others who said that doing so was too much for them.
On the Senate floor Monday, Sen. Steven Sodders, the Democrat managing S.F. 2109, spoke about a national epidemic of child sex abuse and said 90 percent of child victims never report since the vast majority are incapable of doing so before the statute expires. Sex abuse can alter a child’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, he said. But it can take years or decades to recognize the consequences. “Shame on you,” Sodders said to those in the insurance or financial industries who oppose the bill over civil liability claims.
Baltimore supports the Shepard legislation, which passed the House. As for S.F. 2109, he said he’d assign it to a Judiciary subcommittee and then decide whether to move it on. He shares the Iowa Civil Liberties Union’s concern that evidence could be compromised over time. He worries about churches’ and schools’ liability, and people’s reputations.
Lobbyists can usually be expected to line up with their constituencies. But when S.F. 2109 was discussed in a Senate judiciary subcommittee meeting with Johnson present, something unexpected happened. Someone who’d come to lobby against it was overcome with emotion and had to leave, wishing Johnson well. That person’s position was later listed as undecided.
If anyone needed proof of how ubiquitous or long lasting the impact of sex abuse could be, it was in that room. The bill unanimously passed the Senate.