May 12, 2016; National Public Radio
After a judge sentenced former House Speaker Dennis Hastert to 15 months for banking fraud related to covering up allegations of sexual abuse, the judge also repeatedly called him a “child molester” and expressed his regret that he could not sentence him on the abuse itself. Despite having admitted to the abuse, which took place from the 1960s to the 1980s and involved five total victims who have come forward, Hastert cannot be prosecuted for his past actions due to the Illinois statute of limitations. Following Hastert’s case, Illinois lawmakers are considering eliminating the statute of limitations on sexual assault, and advocates across the country are urging other states to change their laws as well.
“I am frustrated,” said U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon following Hastert’s hearing in April. “I wish Mr. Hastert would have been called to the carpet in 1968. We all would have been better off today. This isn’t perfect, but it’s what we got.”
It wasn’t long after allegations against Hastert came to light that advocates began lobbying Illinois and the federal government to change its laws or, at the very least, remove deadlines to prosecute child sex abuse. Currently, Illinois gives victims who were children when they were abused twenty years after they turn 18 to come forward.
Following the sentencing, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) stood on the steps of the Chicago archdiocese and asked the state and federal government to alter the statute of limitations. For many, Hastert’s victims represented others for whom the journey to come to terms with their abuse took until adulthood. Unfortunately, by taking that time, they often lost the possibility of attaining any legal justice in many states.
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“We are calling on lawmakers in Illinois [to] eliminate the statutes of limitations once and for all,” said SNAP president Barbara Blaine in mid-April after Hastert’s sentencing. “Protect children, help victims heal, and hold perpetrators accountable.”
In a joint press release with Polly Poskin from the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan echoed the advocates’ sentiments, asking for lawmakers to reevaluate the statute of limitations for children:
When a prosecutor cannot indict an offender for these heinous acts because the statute of limitations has run, it raises serious moral, legal and ethical questions. We have long supported extending the time period for prosecutors to file sexual assault and abuse charges, and we urge the Legislature to eliminate the statute of limitations on all sex crimes involving children.
Eight states, including Delaware, North Carolina, and South Carolina, do not have any statute of limitations for prosecuting felony sexual assault, regardless of the age of the victim. The majority of states do not have statutes of limitations for sex crimes committed against children. For other victims, however, states vary on their individual policies for prosecuting sexual assault. Alabama and Mississippi give non-minor victims only two and three years to come forward. While the district attorney of Manhattan has been one of the most progressive public figures trying to eliminate the nation’s rape kit backlog, New York State only gives non-minor victims for rape in the third and second degree five years to come forward after the abuse has taken place.
Regardless of whether the time limit is three years or 30, many agree the laws do not allow enough time for victims, and the number is largely random when one considers how individualistic the healing process is. “The need for justice and the need for healing do not suddenly go away after some arbitrary number of years has passed,” said Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. Poskin indicated that it can take victims decades to come to terms with their abuse, and perhaps even longer to report it. The struggle to speak up is made particularly hard when the abuser is someone respected and trusted in the community, like Hastert once was. As such, when a victim finds the statute of limitations does not allow them to find justice in a courtroom, they may feel victimized again.
Statutes of limitations are in place for a reason: to protect the rights of defendants. States do not want to try a case once the evidence is no longer reliable and a defendant cannot mount a proper defense. Can we ensure the integrity of the legal system while also giving victims the opportunity to find justice? It’s certainly worth trying.—Shafaq Hasan