Should Statute of Limitations for Abuse Victims Be Changed?

Accusers and those accused deserve a day in court, even for decades-old incidents

In February 1997, I pulled into the parking lot on North Broad Street for my first day of work at the Daily News. Looking up at the imposing white tower was exhilarating. The thought of working in the same building with some of the journalism giants who I grew up reading made all the long ponderous nights covering zoning and school board meetings at other Podunk papers worthwhile.

One of those giants was Bill Conlin, who for decades made it compelling to read all about the Phillies losing. I can’t say Conlin was a hero, but I greatly admired the toughness and honesty in his writing. So the news that Conlin has been accused of molesting four people when they were kids 40 years ago is still hard to fathom.

First scores of Catholic priests, then the Penn State child abuse cover-up, aided by legendary coach Joe Paterno, and now Conlin. What the hell? The next thing you know the president of the United States will be caught having sex with an intern in the Oval Office. Oh yeah, that’s old news.

I’m not a prude, but is everyone a dirtbag? Can’t anyone in power be trusted anymore? Are there no sacred institutions left?

It should be noted that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has been charged with abusing minors but he has not been convicted. His day in court is coming. Conlin has been accused of molesting minors, but he has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Both men deny the allegations.

Regardless of how things play out with Sandusky and Conlin, the two cases, along with the recent child abuse allegations against a former assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University, have helped to shine a light on broader problem. By the time many of the cases become public, the statute of limitations has long since lapsed.

As a result, charges can’t be filed and those who are accused can’t get their day in court. The passage of time doesn’t make what allegedly happened somehow ok. These cases are some of the worst unlawful violations that can take place. They should be dealt with accordingly, but instead the law protects the predators.

There have been efforts by elected officials in a number of states to pass laws that would provide a so-called window that would allow abuse victims to file a claim where the statute of limitations has passed. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church, insurance companies and their powerful lobbyists have fought those proposals at every turn. (Measures did pass in California and Delaware.)

The church has argued that the window unfairly targets priests. That’s because public schools would be immune from civil lawsuits. That should not be the case. The law should apply to every person and every institution.

In fact, the allegations against Penn State, Syracuse and now Conlin show that child abuse can take place anywhere and by anybody. Clearly, the problem extends well beyond the church. Often, so does the cover up.

Indeed, the Penn State case has spurred other alleged abuse victims to come forward, including Conlin’s accusers. That further shows it often takes decades for victims to speak up about sex abuse, especially if the abuser was a powerful person.

The best outcome for these tragic cases would be for more states to pass laws that either do away with the statute of limitations for child abuse cases. At the very least there should be a window at every state that allows the filing of older cases.

The journalist in Bill Conlin would demand that justice must be carried out.