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Editorial - Maine Sunday Telegram

February 18, 2007

Victims of long-ago abuse deserve their day in court

© Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

The U.S. Constitution rightly forbids lawmakers from reaching back in time and making past actions a crime. That provision keeps state and federal legislative bodies from targeting citizens retroactively, an important protection for our right to question our government.

But sometimes not being able to reach back seems unfair, as is the case with child sex-abuse laws. The statute of limitations on these laws has been extended on a going-forward basis, but lawmakers cannot reach back in time.

What lawmakers can do, however, is allow ordinary citizens to hold abusers responsible in civil courts, and the Maine Legislature is considering just such a bill.

Sponsored by Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, the bill would create a two-year window during which people who were abused as children prior to 1993 could file suit against those who were responsible.

The bill would apply to all cases of child sex abuse, but its supporters are particularly concerned about people who were allegedly victimized by Catholic clergy.

This is an appropriate means for victims to find closure and for abusers to be held accountable. As much as one would like to see those who committed such crimes sent to prison, it would be wrong for the state to create a criminal code retroactively.

A civil case, however, does not bring the power of government directly down upon citizens on a retroactive basis. Instead, it is the victims who are reaching back, and that poses little risk to our collective ability to question our government.

One legitimate concern about Strimling's bill is whether the two-year window will be adequate. Lawmakers should examine carefully whether all those who were abused prior to 1993 have had sufficient time to come to terms with what happened.

Assuming that's the case, there seems little reason not to afford these victims a day in court.