Time on side of abuse victims
New law suspends limit on civil suits
By Christi Parsons - Tribune staff reporter
November 2, 2003
By dramatically changing the way Illinois law looks at child
sexual abuse and the nature of the harm it causes, a new statute
has opened the door for many more civil suits against alleged
The new law puts Illinois among the most lenient in how much
time can pass before such a suit is filed, by essentially
suspending the age limit for some accusers. The law now acknowledges
the difference between unlocking a repressed memory of abuse
and actually recognizing that it was harmful, giving accusers
time for both realizations to happen before shutting the door
It may seem a subtle nuance, but the new law's language radically
shifts the landscape for abuse victims, who experts say may
take decades to realize the consequences of what happened
The change means everything for adults who were sexually
abused as children, say victims and their advocates. Whereas
before the new law almost no one older than 28 had any legal
recourse, now anyone of any age could conceivably bring a
"It became crystal clear to me only last year that I
was harmed by this," said Ken Kaczmarz, 34, who is suing
the priest who he says abused him when he was 11 and 12 as
well as other boys at a Southwest Side church. "It took
me that long to realize that my absolute distrust for authority,
the anger that I have--these things are without a doubt related
to the abuse I suffered at his hands. I'm only ready now to
Before the passage of the law, Kaczmarz was well past the
civil statute of limitations to file a suit. Now, however,
his lawyer can argue in court that the clock didn't start
ticking for him until last year.
Proponents of the law are worried challenges in two courtrooms
in Springfield and Chicago may render it moot. The Springfield
Diocese has challenged the civil part of the law in a case
brought by an adult alleging sexual abuse while he was a child,
and a Chicago parochial school is seeking similar action in
a Cook County case, according to the law's supporters.
Many experts on child sex abuse say suffering injury at a
young age somehow creates a treacherous chasm between the
knowledge of abuse and understanding of its consequences.
Those who traverse that chasm still face a difficult fight
in the courts despite the new law. Though it gives them greater
standing to file suit, the law does not make it easier to
prove the abuse occurred or an accused's guilt. By inviting
so many lawsuits based on discoveries late in life, in fact,
the law may even open a whole new line of defense for the
Still, the legal change is being heralded by countless survivors
of abuse. Previously, people who reported years-old abuse
to police or prosecutors found the law no longer allowed authorities
to file criminal charges or civil suits.
States consider changes
Many states have begun to consider changing their laws to
address the problem, with half a dozen legislatures examining
measures to extend the statutes of limitations for lawsuits.
California is in the midst of a one-year window during which
anyone can bring a claim for damages regardless of when the
alleged abuse occurred.
And a year ago, Connecticut increased the age for filing
suit to 48, .
Inspired by highly publicized clergy sex abuse scandals within
the Catholic Church, lawmakers in Illinois last spring passed
the law clarifying and extending the limitations on both criminal
prosecution and civil claims.
Previously, prosecutors could pursue criminal charges only
if an accuser was younger than 28. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed
the measure into law in July, allowing prosecutors to file
child sex abuse charges in future cases up to 20 years after
an accuser turns 18.
A second change gives all accusers more time to file civil
suits as well. Now they have 10 years after turning 18, instead
of just two years.
But a third significant change effectively suspends the age
limit for many accusers: It gives them five years after they
have not just recognized they had been abused but also after
they have realized the harm it caused.
Like policymakers all over the country, Illinois officials
have only recently come to this viewpoint. The prevailing
attitude was reflected in a 2000 opinion of the Illinois Supreme
Court, ruling against a 32-year-old Kane County woman suing
the priest who she alleged sexually abused her as a minor.
In that case, the justices said they thought she'd waited
too long to bring her suit because she had always been aware
of what had happened to her.
"The plaintiff does not contend that she repressed memories
of the abuse committed by [the priest]," Justice Benjamin
Miller wrote, "or that she was not aware that his misconduct
was harmful. Rather, the plaintiff asserts that she did not
discover until years later the full extent of the injuries
she allegedly sustained as a result of the childhood occurrences."
In those circumstances, justices said, the clock should start
at the time an accuser turns 18.
But among the vast and increasingly public network of sexual
abuse survivors, that notion runs counter to what they believe
about the effects of such abuse--and about the way victims
arrive at a point where they can confront their attackers.
Knowing that you were abused and realizing you were seriously
harmed by it are two different things, many advocates and
"It's almost medieval, the ignorance about the dynamic
of child abuse," said Jeff Anderson, a Minneapolis-based
lawyer who is filing such civil suits in Illinois and other
states. "There's a cultural denial that the most trusted
people among us wouldn't do such horrible things, and that
refusal to believe there's a problem affects the victims too.
Courts and lawmakers don't understand why it is that people
need more time before they can face it."
Realization years later
Psychologically, that often stems from the fact that it takes
abuse survivors years to realize they were crime victims,
some experts say.
"Your age colors your sense of what's appropriate,"
said Susan Phipps-Yonas, a psychologist and expert witness
who frequently testifies in sex abuse court proceedings around
the country. "You may for a long time have such distorted
cognitions about what happened and, to whatever extent the
individual feels it was her fault or his fault, that complicated
so much the ability to understand that this was abuse."
Survivors have to first realize they were victims of abuse
before they can come to the knowledge that the abuse harmed
them, Phipps-Yonas said.
In fact, the average age of the people who join support groups
for victims of child sex abuse is high, with few members attending
before age 30, Chicago-area support group members say.
Illinois law now more clearly respects this reasoning. It
also stipulates that none of the limitation periods run while
an accuser is subject to threats, intimidation, manipulation
As a result of this change, many who were previously ineligible
to pursue civil suits are now able to file them.
Kaczmarz is among those plaintiffs. He said he remembered
in 1992 that he had been abused by a priest when he was a
child, just as stories of clergy abuse began appearing in
"I started thinking about my relationship with him,
and all of these episodes in his office began coming back
to me," Kaczmarz said.
Desire to protect others
Before the passage of the new law, Kaczmarz would have had
no recourse, and the suit, which he filed in February, may
well have been thrown out of court. Now, though, because he
contends he discovered the harm within the last five years,
he has standing to sue the priest and the religious order
in court. At the very least, Kaczmarz hopes, the public nature
of the suit will help prevent the priest from being put in
positions of trust around children again.
Dozens of other potential plaintiffs are in the same position
now, said Joe Klest, a Chicago-area attorney who handles such
cases and who also helped craft the law. While the change
only allows criminal charges in future cases of abuse, victims
of all ages who have discovered their injuries in the last
five years can come forward in civil court.
"This changes everything for a lot of people,"
Klest said. "Finally, there is something they can do
about what happened to them."
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune