Child sexual abuse has recently been the focus of three high-profile stories. Most prominently, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexually assaulting 10 different boys since 1998. Most dramatically, Msrg. William Lynn became the highest ranking official in the Catholic Church to be convicted of a crime connected to covering-up the sexual abuse of children by priests. Most controversially, the New York Times published a long story about sexual abuse by teachers, none of whom had been charged in court, at the Horace Mann School.
A recent editorial in the New York Times focused on one lesson that ties all three stories together: “the reality of late uncovering of child sexual abuse.” For psychological and emotional reasons, victims of sexual abuse often delay reporting their abuse. The law can recognize these realities by extending the statute of limitations to allow for civil and criminal cases to go forward in adulthood. But New York state law does not permit this. Their “egregiously short statute of limitations,” as the Times put it, “tilts the legal playing field against accountability, fairness and public safety.”
The New York legislature needs to do what the Pennsylvania legislature did years ago: extend the statute of limitations well into adulthood. Had that not occurred in Pennsylvania, the Sandusky case could not have gone forward. Neither could the case against Mrsg. Lynn. The state would have been as powerless to act as prosecutors in New York are now that a former Horace Mann teacher has admitted to sexually abusing students, adding weight to a story that some criticized for focusing only on teachers who are deceased.
We would all do well to remember who lobbied against extending the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania. When the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from victims of sexual abuse in 1994, there was one witness who testified in opposition: Pamela Freyd, Executive Director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Mrs. Freyd expressed the concern that extending the statute of limitations “may create more tarnished reputations” (Testimony of Pamela Freyd, Senate Judiciary Committee, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; May 24, 1994, p. 5). She urged the committee to amend the bill to “encourage and emphasize alternative means of resolving these matters other than courts” (Id., p. 7). We now know how well “alternative means” worked for children who were abused by Jerry Sandusky and for those abused under the supervision of the Catholic Church. We also know that justice would never have been done in those cases if Mrs. Freyd’s position had prevailed.
The simple fact is that the FMSF, through Pamela Freyd, lobbied against legislative changes that would increase accountability, fairness and public safety around child sexual abuse. Instead, they were more worried, as were those who covered up for Jerry Sandusky and for pedophile priests in Pennsylvania, about the possibility of “tarnished reputations.”