Sexual abuse of a child is a heinous crime, one that can have an unusual series of consequences. The abuse may never be known by others at the time. Out of fear or shame, the young victim may bury the traumatic memory so deep it is mentally blocked out - only to emerge years later with devastating psychological impact.
As social workers and mental health workers are discovering, this sequence is more common than earlier believed. Sexual abuse as a child frequently becomes known only many years later, either as a result of counseling or as a suddenly unleashed psychological breakdown.Yet when such long-delayed information finally does come to light, it may be impossible to file criminal charges against the abuser because the statute of limitations has expired. Under Utah law, once eight years have passed since the abuse, the crime cannot be prosecuted.
In an effort to deal with this problem, a bill before the 1991 Utah Legislature seeks to remove the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse. The crime could be pursued many years later, although legal action would have to be taken within four years once the abuse was reported.
The statute of limitations usually varies according to the type of crime, with a shorter limit for less serious offenses. But for some felonies, like murder or manslaughter, there is no statute of limitations. For others, where the crime might not come to light immediately - embezzlement of public money or falsifying of public records - there also is no time limit. Prosecution may begin, the law says, "at any time."
Given the delayed knowledge in many instances of child sexual abuse - and the seriousness of this crime - the same open-ended approach should apply.
As a practical matter, dropping the statute of limitations probably would not result in a large increase in prosecutions. After 15 or 20 years, trying such a case would pose considerable difficulties.
But there may be circumstances where having that option is desirable or even necessary - either as punishment for a particularly vicious abuse or to protect potential victims if the abuser is still in a situation where other youngsters are at risk.
In addition, the knowledge that the statute of limitation never runs out on such a crime might be some deterrent to a child abuser.
The proposed law, HB32, has been unanimously approved by the House Education Standing Committee and deserves favorable action by the full Legislature.