Bill Would Repeal Time Limit on Cases

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007; B06

In the District, murder is the only crime that never dies.

With no statute of limitations, murder charges can be brought even decades later.

Now, sex abuse victims, crime victim advocates and law enforcement officials are urging the D.C. Council to put child sex abuse in the same category.

A bill that would repeal the statute of limitations on criminal charges and civil claims stemming from child sex abuse has been introduced by several council members.

The proposal comes three years after the council extended the statute of limitations on child sex crimes and changed the law so that the clock does not start ticking until the victim is 21. The statue of limitations was increased from six years for first- and second-degree child sexual abuse to 15 years, and to 10 years for enticing and using a minor in a sexual performance.

In a hearing yesterday on the proposal to lift the limits entirely, the council's Judiciary Committee heard arguments from supporters, some of them adult victims of child sex abuse, and from opponents, among them the Archdiocese of Washington.

Under the proposed revision in the law, criminal charges of child sex abuse could be filed at any time, even decades later.

The bill would eliminate the three-year statute of limitations on civil actions stemming from sexual abuse. And it would set up a two-year window when claims could be filed retroactively for any abuse no matter how old, giving victims barred from suing under the current law a one-time chance to file a civil suit.

Supporters of the change said many victims do not realize they are victims until years later, often not until they are adults.

"Child sex abuse is a unique crime, said Mary Lou Leary, a former U.S. attorney in the District who is now the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Statutes of limitations, she said, aid perpetrators of child sex abuse. The more that victims were humiliated and degraded, the longer it can take to come forward, she said.

Barbara Blaine was one of those victims. Abused by a priest for years beginning the summer before she entered eighth grade, Blaine is now the president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"Even though I am 51 years old, I am still haunted by what he did to me," she told committee Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) and other council members.

Statutes of limitations are deeply rooted in American jurisprudence, and Mendelson said there are reasons why eliminating them is problematic.

"There are issues of evidence. There are issues of memory. There are issues of fairness," he said. "And at some point one weighs out the other."

Safeguards against the sweeping power of the state are a fundamental element of the American legal system, he said, adding, "Our American justice system is built around protecting the innocent."

Maryland and Virginia do not have statutes of limitations for felony crimes, but neither state has lifted the time limit on civil claims arising from the sexual abuse of children as this bill would.

"Eliminating the limitations altogether is not a reasoned and balanced response," Kevin T. Baine, a Williams & Connolly lawyer who represents the archdiocese, said of the provision on civil claims. The archdiocese does not oppose repealing the statute of limitations on criminal charges.

A crush of cases stemming from events decades past could be catastrophic, he said. Any insurance available at the time of the alleged actions would have been secured based on the risks of the day, not now, and it would probably not cover the potential liability.

Jane Belford, chancellor of the archdiocese, who spoke of the steps the archdiocese had taken to deal with abuse by priests, said the proposal was unfair because it would not be applied equally.

For example, the proposed change would not be applied to District schools. Like city agencies, the school district must be notified within six months by a person intending to sue.

"Any change to the statute of limitations should be fair," she said.