The Economist explains Why sex crimes have statutes of limitations, Economist

BILL COSBY, the 78-year-old entertainer, has been accused of rape by dozens of women. On October 9th, he will give a deposition in a lawsuit brought by Judy Huth, now in her 50s, who says the comedian assaulted her at the Playboy mansion when she was fifteen years old. But this is only the second time Mr Cosby has faced civil litigation for as many as 40 episodes of alleged sexual abuse, and he has never been charged with a crime.

How has Mr Cosby largely managed to stay out of court? The alleged violations in question all occurred years ago, and many states’ statutes of limitations impose limits on how long a person may be held legally accountable for an illicit act. In Colorado and a few other states, there is a 10-year cap on prosecuting people for sexual assault. In Arkansas, the limit is six years; it is 20 years in Ohio. The patchwork grows more complex when considering whether the rape was first-degree, or second or third, and when adding the factor of age. In Oregon, the statute of limitations for rape and sexual abuse is six years, but in cases involving minors, it runs until the accuser turns 30 or within 12 years after the offence is reported to the police, whichever comes sooner. But there is no national norm for a statute of limitations for rape, as there is for the crime of murder.

Some would like to change that. Last year, Wendy Davis, a Democrat who lost a bid to become the governor of Texas, argued that her state should lift its 10-year statute of limitations for rape. There are many cases, she argued, in which rapists are identified or admit their crimes after the window has closed. To “make survivors pay the price for our failure and neglect by denying them justice is almost criminal in itself,” she said. The National Centre for Victims of Crime notes that “only 46 percent of rapes that occur in the United States are reported to police and only 9 percent of these reports result in prosecution.” The organisation suggests that more states adopt an exception to their statutes of limitations when DNA evidence is available linking an individual to a sex crime.

In a speech last month to bishops in Philadelphia, Pope Francis declared that “the crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors cannot be kept secret any longer.” The Catholic Church, he promised, will pursue a path of “zealous watchfulness…to protect minors…All those responsible will be held accountable.” Yet the Catholic Church does not favour scrapping statutes of limitations and is actively lobbying against such reforms in Iowa, Maryland and the District of Columbia. “Over time witnesses’ memories fade, evidence is lost or never found, and in many instances perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased,” explains a spokesperson for the church. Some counter that survivors of sexual abuse should have more time to press criminal charges or sue in civil court, as years or decades may pass before victims realise the gravity of the violation.

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