In the wake of a grand jury report of clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, a legislator introduced a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations on prosecuting such cases. Currently, Pennsylvania allows criminal charges to be filed in childhood sexual abuse cases until the victim reaches the age of 50. While any limitations on such a crime might seem troubling, Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations is relatively generous. In some states the statute of limitations is much lower, for example:
- Oregon and Washington require victims to file any charges before they turn 30.
- Iowa, Kansas and Montana allow criminal charges to be filed for only ten years after the victim turns 18.
- Nevada permits filing only until the victim turns 21 if the victim discovered or should have discovered that he or she was a victim, or until 28 if the victim had no way of discovering what happened.
- North Dakota permits filing for seven years after the abuse occurred or three years after an initial report was made.
- Hawaii’s statute of limitations for sexual abuse of a minor is three to six years.
These statutes of limitations may seem arbitrary, even cruel given the severity of the crime, but these strict time limits are not universal. For example, seven states currently have no statutes of limitations on sex crimes involving minors: Wyoming, West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland and Kentucky. And, there have been some compelling justifications for statutes of limitations on sex crimes. Physical evidence and memories of an event may deteriorate over time, which may make such cases harder to prove. Further, extending statutes of limitations is no easy task: in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that California could not pass a law that retroactively extended the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of a child. Marion Stogner was indicted in 1998 for crimes committed between 1955 and 1973. Just five years earlier, California passed a law that revived child sex abuse cases that expired if the new case was filed within one year of a report to the police. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where a 5-4 decision held that the new statute made Stogner’s crime “greater than it was” by subjecting him to punishment years after the original statute of limitations expired. Therefore, new reports of long ago sexual abuse, no matter how horrifying, are unlikely to lead to prosecution in states with strict statutes of limitations. However, these accounts may lead to changes in state laws in the future.
Kathleen Davies is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.