How Long Is Too Long to Report Rape?

Advocates want to end the statute of limitations on civil and criminal litigation against rapists and child molesters.

Changing the statute of limitations to allow for civil action against the Catholic Church for sexual abuse led to significant reforms. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Mar 8, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

New York’s Rape is Rape bill—which would include forced oral and anal penetration in the legal definition of rape—suffered a huge setback last week when a major Republican backer of the bill, New York State Senator Catharine Young, retracted her support, arguing that juries will reject the idea that forced anal or oral penetration constitutes rape and refuse to convict.

That notion is a slap in the face to people like Andrew Willis.

“I may not have a vagina, but I was raped as a child,” Willis tells TakePart.

It took Willis decades and a 2008 suicide attempt before he finally came to terms with his abuse.

Then, he became an advocate.

Willis is the cofounder of Stop Abuse Campaign. His organization is at the forefront of attempting to bring New York’s (and the rest of America’s) rape laws into the 21st century. Not only is Stop Abuse Campaign one of the primary backers of New York’s Rape is Rape bill, it is making a nationwide push to end civil and criminal statutes of limitations on reporting crimes of sexual violence—particularly sexual crimes against children.

In Minnesota, Stop Abuse Campaign is backing the Child Victims Act, which would end the statute of limitations on civil litigation against perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Minnesota law currently states that child victims have until six years after they turn 18 to bring legal action against their attacker.

Willis argues that allowing civil litigation isn’t just about compensating victims—it can be a means of preventing further abuse:

“When an insurance company pays out a massive claim, you better believe they are trying to work out how to never pay it again. They become agents of reform, pressuring organizations like the Catholic Church to change—to put in better safeguards. Civil litigation turns economics to our advantage. We can use economics to stop abuse. And it works.”

If pushing for rape prevention and allowing children the time they need to confront their attackers sounds like a political no-brainer, it’s not. Similar, more-modest legislative efforts to raise the statute of limitations to ten years in New York—where victims of child sexual abuse have only five years from the time they turn 18 to bring both criminal and civil charges—have failed every year since 2005.

Dr. Robert Geffner, President of the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, at Alliant University, says that statute of limitations laws on sexual abuse are completely arbitrary from a scientific perspective. His 30 years of experience in treating victims of sexual abuse has shown him that survivors often need decades to steel themselves for a legal battle against their attacker. Sexual abuse in childhood is particularly complicated. Geffner says the reasons for taking years into adulthood to come forward are numerous.

“When sexual abuse occurs during childhood, it’s often associated with shame, guilt and self-blame,” Geffner tells TakePart. “If the abuse came from within the family unit, or someone trusted by the family, who do you come forward to? Or there may have been threats. There are often incredible barriers from a psychological or intimidation standpoint, as to why they don’t come forward.”

Geffner says that taking legal action against their rapist isn’t any easier for adults—which is why so many rapes go unreported.

“The majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. So guilt and self-blame are very high again. Additionally, the stigma is still very strong. If you look at what happens when someone comes forward to talk about sexual assault, people immediately begin questioning: What did he or she do to allow this to happen? Was it something she was wearing? What kind of position did she put herself in?”

The result is that years or decades can go by before survivors of rape are ready to report their abuse.

“By the time my patients have come to terms with their abuse,” says Geffner, “not only have civil statute of limitations expired, but in many areas, even criminal statutes have expired.”

Geffner says that having no legal recourse to confront their attacker often results in major setbacks for the treatment of abuse victims.

“Rape is a serious crime. Putting an arbitrary time limit minimizes its traumatic nature. They view it as the offender getting away with it, or being free to do it to others. It’s difficult enough for someone to come forward as a child or even an adult. If you come forward, and it doesn’t do any good, it’s really a re-victimization.”

Like Rape is Rape, political movement on statutes of limitations faces an uphill climb. But Willis says he won’t stop until all civil and criminal statute of limitations have been removed for rape.

“People who have suffered trauma are not public property,” says Willis. “They have the right to come to terms with it in their own time and express it in their own way, when they are ready. Being ready can simply be a collision of circumstances. Often, it’s as straightforward as realizing you are not the only one.”

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