The Biggest Deterrent to Reporting Child Sexual Abuse

Children’s-rights advocates have been working to fix statute-of-limitation laws that stop victims from coming forward later in life.

Joelle Casteix, a member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, wears a photo of herself at the age of 16, when she says she was abused and impregnated by a high-school teacher.. (David McNew / Reuters)

In the United States, about one-third of child-sexual-abuse victims come forward with their allegations before adulthood. Another third disclose far later in life—the median age is 52—and the rest never reveal their past trauma at all. In recent years, many children’s advocates have looked to shift these low reporting numbers (and correspondingly low rates of prosecution) by addressing a legal hurdle that lies in the way of many victims seeking court-based justice: the statute of limitations.

Speaking yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, the lawyer Kathryn Robb, who serves as the executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, noted a clear gap between lawmakers’ understanding of abuse and their visions of justice. “There’s a lot of ignorance about the nature of trauma, why victims don’t disclose, and the idiocy of statutes of limitations, their arbitrary unfairness,” Robb said. “That’s a bit of a frustration, just trying to educate legislative leaders and governors across the [country].”

As of this year, 38 states (as well as the District of Columbia) are reconsidering their statute of limitations for sexual-abuse cases. Robb and her fellow panel speaker Marci Hamilton—the founder, CEO, and academic director of CHILD USA—spent 16 years attempting to persuade New York state legislators to pass laws that would lift restrictions on victims who come forward with allegations later in life. In New York, the criminal statute of limitations for felony sexual abuse of a minor has been extended to age 28; for misdemeanors, survivors can come forward until they reach the age of 25. For civil cases—against people and institutions—the statute of limitations now extends to age 55.

Hamilton is encouraged by these shifts, but she remains hyperaware of the legal challenges many survivors face. “When they finally are ready to talk, when they’re in their 30s, their 40s, their 50s, they go sit down with a lawyer and the lawyer says, ‘Sorry, you’re out of luck. You’re too late. It’s your fault that you can’t get justice,’” she said of those who had been unable to adjudicate their claims via the courts prior to these revisions. But even now, divides remain. “We’ve got two sets of victims in the United States,” Hamilton continued. “We have victims from the past who have been shut out of the system. We have the victims right now that are increasingly getting more opportunities as we change the laws.”

Much of the slow change in legal processes has come about due to the relentless strategizing of children’s advocates, which many describe as a kind of civil-rights movement. The push to reform legal responses to child sexual abuse saw both renewed enthusiasm and institutional backlash following the 2002 Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church’s alleged cover-up of wide-ranging abuses. “Kids can’t speak up,” Robb said when comparing child-sexual-abuse-prevention work to other social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, which have buoyed children’s advocates’ efforts. “I wasn’t able to really share [my own experience of abuse] until I was well into adulthood, and to share it publicly [until] I was in my 40s.”

Peter Isely, the co-founder of Ending Clergy Abuse and the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, agreed that survivors’ voices have been integral to advancing legal reforms and spreading broader social awareness. But even as legal statutes become less arcane, victims still face immense interpersonal pressure to remain silent. “That message, as a child, gets drilled into you, because most children know, when you come forward, what you’re up against,” he said. “And you’re not gonna be backed for the most part. There are very, very, very good reasons why survivors don’t come forward.”