Voters support SOL reform; Legislators should follow., Mai Fernandez, Hamilton and Griffin on Rights

Supporting the rights of children over those of institutions remains an uphill battle in the United States. The public understands that child abusers don’t retire, and they know that many institutions reflexively protect their reputations rather protect kids. Meanwhile, legislators lag way behind their constituents.

In California, legislators ran from the committee room to avoid recording a vote on the Child Victims Act, a bill which would have provided a modest window for adult survivors of child sex abuse to have their day in court. When the bill finally passed with the narrowest of margins, it was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. In New York state, a similar reform act has been repeatedly blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Slowly, however, the gap between legislators and the public on this issue is gaining attention. What is also clear is that all demographics – including Democrats, Republicans, Catholics and Non-Catholics want their representatives to reform the laws that stop child abusing victims getting justice. The National Center for Victims of Crime recently commissioned a poll of 600 voters in several key Republican senate districts on New York State to see if voters supported their legislator’s efforts to block reform. Yet, even in an electorate that favors Republicans, strong majorities in every demographic and every geographic region polled favored sex abuse victims’ efforts to expand their access to civil courts.

A 57% majority of voters surveyed thought it should be easier for victims of child sex abuse to sue their abuser or the organization where the abuse occurred, versus 9% that thought it should be harder to sue and 20% that favored the status quo.

By a margin of 60% to 38%, voters in Republican Senate districts prefer a system where victims can sue their abuser “at any time” rather than having “some time limit” after the abuse occurs.

Despite the church’s assertions that the legislation is ”anti-Catholic,” “singles out the church for liability,” and harms “good institutions, rather than the perpetrators of the abuse,” 67% support eliminating the civil statute of limitations, from this point forward, to allow future victims to sue their abuser or a legally-responsible organization at any time. That position was supported by 63% of Republican/Conservative Party voters and 70% of Catholics

In recent years, Florida, Maine, Alaska, Minnesota and Illinois have all eliminated the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse. California, Delaware, Hawaii and Minnesota have passed civil windows which allowed old cases to be filed. In all of those states, perpetrators have been exposed, children have been protected, victims received justice, and none of the major youth-serving organizations went out of business. Perhaps some strategically used public opinion polls could help pull a few more states into the “SOL reform caucus” and further promote justice and accountability for victims of childhood sexual abuse.

While opponents maintain that the “civil window” – which temporarily suspends the statute of limitations for sex abuse victims and allows them to file civil lawsuits no matter how long ago the abuse occurred – is the most objectionable provision of the Child Victims Act, 55% of voters surveyed support the civil window. Voters who support the civil window include 58% of Republicans and 60% of Catholics.

If the Church’s policy arguments against SOL reform are insufficient to secure a legislator’s opposition, the Bishops often suggest that, by voting against the Church’s interests, the legislator risks losing “the Catholic Vote.” Yet, by a 2:1 margin, voters say they would be more likely to a legislator who supported expanding statutes of limitation for child sex abuse victims.

The public makes clear that the rights of children and adult survivors of child abuse are a priority. It is time their elected representatives examine their consciences and step up.