Linda Crockett, Child sex-abuse victims deserve time to seek justice, Lancaster Online

A major focus of Samaritan Counseling Center is preventing child sexual abuse. Our therapists see the devastation it causes, the ripple effect often extending into midlife. Samaritan SafeChurch is a project we started to educate faith communities about sexual abuse prevention.

As director of Samaritan’s Clergy & Congregation Care, I started SafeChurch in 2011 because I know that people of faith find it unacceptable that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before age 18.

Many congregations are ready to do the hard work needed to create safety for children and bring healing to survivors, and we have grown rapidly into a national ecumenical training program.

Many parishioners feel ashamed of being in the news for institutional failure to protect children. They tell us if they are to be in the news at all, they want it to be for their fierce commitment to protecting children from sexual harm. They want their churches and communities to be safe places. They care about justice and healing for survivors, and accountability for offenders.

Reforming Pennsylvania’s civil statute of limitations would help to ensure such accountability.

In Pennsylvania, adult victims of childhood sexual abuse have only until they’re 30 to bring civil action against their abusers. Criminal action may be brought until the victim reaches the age of 50.

The public narrative that statute of limitations reform is all about the Roman Catholic Church must change. It’s true that the Catholic Church has fiercely resisted statute-of-limitations reform across the United States.

But this is also true: Ninety-five percent of victims have been abused by family members, teachers, baby sitters, neighbors, others. An estimated 5 percent are molested by clergy of any denomination.

Related: LNP Editorial Board calls for reform

In Pennsylvania, by the time many survivors begin to deal with their sexual abuse, they are well past their 30th birthdays and the window for civil justice is closed under our current statute-of-limitations law. Many victims suffer in silence for decades, unfairly carrying shame that rightfully belongs to the perpetrator.

Offenders are very good at manipulating children to keep the secret and convincing them that the abuse is their fault. Some victims are unable to remember what happened until a stressful midlife event triggers memories that were shoved away in childhood in order to survive.

The reality of delayed disclosure among victims of child sexual abuse is supported well by research. Given all that we know, the window of justice should not close at age 30.

So what does justice for a survivor look like?

First, it means telling their stories. Keeping the statute-of-limitations window open gives survivors an opportunity to tell their stories and, if they are found credible, finally hold the offender accountable — something the survivors could not make happen as children.

Second, justice means restitution. Victims of sexual abuse are at higher risk for post-traumatic stress disorder than combat veterans. They often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, attempt suicide, have difficulty with careers and relationships. Restitution helps pay for the high cost of healing.

Statute-of-limitations reform will finally shift the cost of healing from the victim to the one who caused the harm.

And finally, justice includes protecting children. If this reform is enacted, more offenders will be identified, and parents will be able to make better decisions about how to keep their kids safe. Many offenders continue to operate in schools, sports, and churches — while their victims of decades ago have nightmares about the children at risk today.

I spoke at a press conference at the state Capitol on Sept. 21 organized by Berks County Democratic state Rep. Mark Rozzi to highlight the urgent need for reform.

We need action on several bills, including House Bills 661 (to raise the age at which a victim may file a civil claim to 50), 655 (to end the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse) and 951 (opening a two-year window for child sex-abuse victims now over age 30 to file civil suits), and Senate Bill 582 (the Senate version of HB 661). These bills are languishing in committee. Similar bills have stalled in the past.

Sharing a podium with Rep. Rozzi and other advocates for children’s justice, I offered a voice from the faith community and closed with these words:

“As people of faith, we are tired of a few politicians and institutions standing in the way. Like the prophet Amos, who, in a time when the religious and political elites oppressed the most vulnerable, spoke truth to power with his words, ‘Let Justice roll down like waters!’ we demand justice for survivors, accountability for offenders, and the safety of children. What person of any religious tradition, or moral conscience, could stand in the way of that?’ ”

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