The New York State Assembly recently made it easier for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to seek justice. Similar legislation is under consideration in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well. Should these laws take effect, it would lift the statute of limitations of criminal sexual assault, and provide survivors a longer period of time in which to bring a civil action against individual abusers as well as institutions that failed to prevent or concealed the assault.
In New York, the previous law allowed sexual abuse survivors to file charges against abusers until the age of 23. The new Child Victim's Act, signed into law this month by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, raises that age to 28 for filing criminal charges and 55 for bringing a civil action.
The new law was a major victory for abuse victims and advocates, coming as it did after a 13-year long legislative battle. Fighting on behalf of insurance companies, private schools, and religious organizations who have feared that defending allegations of sexual abuse would drive them into bankruptcy, GOP legislators were able to stonewall the bill until control of the Assembly passed to the Democrats in last November's elections.
In the Keystone State, a grand jury report published in August 2018, has led to the introduction of similar legislation. That report recommended that all statutes of limitations on criminal sexual assault be eliminated. While this may be feasible going forward, such a law would be little help to those for whom the criminal statute of limitations has already expired, due to a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In Stogner v. California, the plaintiff successfully argued that the state's retroactive extension of an expired statute of limitation for sex crimes involving minors was an “ex post facto” law (one that punishes an act committed before the law was passed), and therefore unconstitutional.
The good news is that the ruling did not apply to civil actions, so it would be possible for victims to file lawsuits after the fact within a specific time window.
It is easier for victims in New Jersey, where there is no statute of limitations for sex crimes. A bill currently being considered by Garden State lawmakers would expand the statute of limitations on civil actions, and allow victims to file lawsuits until their 55th birthday, or within 7 years of becoming aware of the incidents in question. This is particularly important because traumatized children often suppress such memories – and it is impossible to predict how and when such memories may resurface.
In addition, the New Jersey law would allow victims previously unable to sue to file complaints within a two-year window, beginning Dec. 1, 2019.