Congress Should Expunge Statutes of Limitations on Child Sexual Assault—Nationwide | Opinion

July 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of Florida's repeal of all civil and criminal statutes of limitation for prosecution of cases involving child sexual battery. The repeal has opened courthouse doors so survivors can enter when they are sufficiently recovered mentally and emotionally to confront their abusers. A delayed report of child sex abuse to law enforcement no longer means officers have to wait for the reporting of a predator's next victim and abusers can now be brought to justice and exposed in our communities. Institutions that care for our children, from churches to schools to daycare centers, have more incentive to keep children safe because they are held accountable. And, the ticking of a clock reward is eliminated, mitigating intimidation tactics abusers use to silence their prey for years or even decades.

It is undeniable that statutes of limitation do nothing to protect children and show no respect for survivors. In Florida, empathy for survivors has created an understanding of why the injuries inflicted in a few moments can take many years to heal. There is acknowledgement of the flashbacks, the haunting body memories and the struggle to regain trust in humanity that keep survivors silent for years. We join survivors of yesterday's horrific abuses in their courageous efforts to make sure that today's children do not walk in their shoes.

It took six years to win this legislative fight in Florida. We fought the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy, and the insurance industry that claimed sympathetic jury verdicts would bankrupt them. They claimed liability insurance premiums would skyrocket for any program involving children, forcing schools to shutter and recreation leagues to disband, as well as siphoning funds used for charitable programs. The ten years since have disproven these prophesies of doom.

In the past decade, Catholic charity work in Florida continues unabated and larger than ever. The year after the repeal, Catholic Charities of the Palm Beach Diocese reported providing services to some 9,000 people with a budget of over $5.8 million. Its most recent report for 2017 – 2018 shows it provided services to some 17,000 people with a budget of over $7 million. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami continues to provide eight major types of services in partnership with multiple public and private agencies with an annual budget of some $30 million. At least one Catholic diocesan-level foundation has tripled its charitable grants to schools, missions and other charitable purposes since the 2010 repeal. These charitable efforts remain vibrant not because of the repeal, but because the repeal has proven to be irrelevant to thwarting such missions.

Catholic Church schools in Florida remain robust too, totaling some 244 primary and secondary education schools, enrolling over 85,000 students and employing over 7,700 teaching professionals. Even programs that have been plagued with abuse claims, like Boy Scouts of America, have seen membership growth since Florida's repeal was passed. And USA Gymnastics maintains over 180 member clubs in Florida.

Despite Florida disproving dire predictions, the Catholic Church hierarchy and their supporters have not been dissuaded from recycling their same arguments to oppose repeal efforts in other states. Many elected officials have given deference to those arguments in response to the millions of dollars the church and others continue to spend on defeating repeal efforts. Florida's experience proves the hypocrisy of these arguments.

Ironically, states where the Catholic church has seen the greatest losses in parishes are those which did not repeal the statute of limitations prior to 2019, New York and Pennsylvania, demonstrating that demographic and population changes fuel growth or decreases, not legal reform for child safety and justice.

As former Representative Chris Dorworth, the Florida House sponsor of the repeal argued, "This bill sends two messages. Stay out of our state and stay the hell away from our kids." The fact is today a child sex predator can survey the laws of the many states to figure out where to go to victimize children with the best opportunity to get away with it. So why, ten years into Florida's success in protecting children and disproving the naysayers, have so few states followed its model? According to ChildUSA, which monitors efforts to reform these statutes of limitation, at least 35 states are still considering, but only ten of the fifty states have fully repealed the civil statutes of limitation.

States are taking far too long to fix this injustice. Even many states that have acted are still imposing deadlines on survivors. So, Congress should act. Congress can incentivize states to do what Florida did ten years ago, paving the fastest way to provide the best nationwide protection for our children. As a survivor and as a parent of children in Florida, I am proud of our work as a state. But truly, child predators and those who give them safe harbor should not find refuge in states' laws.

Michael Dolce is a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, the leader of the firm's Sexual Abuse, Sex Trafficking, and Domestic Abuse team and a child sex abuse survivor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​