How to help victims of sexual abuse get justice: Eliminate statutes of limitations
In the United States, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience sexual abuse every year. On college campuses, 13% of students experience rape or sexual assault. And for those brave enough to come forward, our legal system actively works against them — often precluding them from pursuing justice altogether through outdated state laws with statutes of limitations.
For example, survivors of abuse at Ohio State University have been prevented from seeking justice under state causes of action or Title IX by narrow statutes of limitations, even though survivors of abuse in other states don’t encounter the same barriers.
Justice must be available to abuse survivors whenever they are ready to come forward, regardless of geographic boundaries.
With new leadership in Congress and the White House, it is past time for federal lawmakers to prioritize an effort to expand the statute of limitations for these crimes nationwide, with one federal standard that guarantees survivors the right to come forward when they are ready and able.
Legislators can advance this goal by incentivizing states to increase access to justice and by amending Title IX regulations to guarantee survivors nationwide a uniform, sufficient time for claims to be filed.
Most claims against institutions like schools, churches and community organizations — even those who are known to have been complicit in covering up abuse or who actively discouraged survivors from speaking out — are governed by states’ statutes of limitations.
This creates altogether different justice systems based solely on geography, defying the basic principles of our legal system. When the Time’s Up movement revealed systemic, widespread abuse, Congress was united in its outrage and demands for justice. This moment is an opportunity for our lawmakers to recognize and correct yet another persistent, abhorrent blind spot in our laws and protect survivors.
Last month, the University of Southern California announced $1.1 billion in settlements to the survivors of a campus doctor who preyed on hundreds of his patients over the course of several decades. This sum, one of the largest in a sexual abuse case brought against a university, will allow individual plaintiffs to receive amounts reaching into the millions.
But compare that with Ohio State University, which announced a similar settlement last year with 162 plaintiffs — but for only $41 million total.
State laws show wide disparity
This dramatic disparity is reflected around the country. In states that have recently updated their laws governing the statute of limitations for civil sex abuse lawsuits — such as California and New York — payouts are fairer and more frequent, and more survivors are able to file suit.
But in many states where these reforms lag behind, thousands of survivors are left unable to pursue justice against their abusers.
The landmark USC settlements are in no small part because of the California Legislature’s passage of a 2019 bill that temporarily lifted the 10-year statute of limitations for certain sexual assault lawsuits and created a three-year window for all claims to be heard.
Like the New York Child Victims Act and the Arizona Child Protection Act, this law enabled survivors who were abused as children or in college the opportunity to come forward and finally seek justice — no matter when their abuse took place.
Meanwhile, in the suit brought against Ohio State, the university initially tried to deny the plaintiffs’ right to file suit altogether. The institution claimed that the abuse perpetrated by Dr. Richard Strauss occurred too long ago for survivors to file claims.
Ohio’s laws require college students’ civil lawsuits to be filed within just two years of the time abuse occurs, with criminal statutes as short as six years. Before litigating the claims themselves, survivors and their attorneys were forced to argue for the basic right to pursue restorative justice.
Congress can ensure justice for all
Congress must make sure the federal government is at the forefront of ensuring justice for everyone. These reforms are in the public interest, not just survivors’.
This is the way our country will ensure institutions can be held accountable for their actions, and how the full picture of our nation’s sexual abuse crisis will be revealed.
It is unconscionable that a survivor’s access to justice continues to be determined by where they lived when they suffered abuse, or relies on decades-old laws that protect their abusers.
Congress has the opportunity to pursue meaningful change to ensure every American who has ever been abused gets the day in court they deserve — no matter where they live.