ST. LOUIS — Missouri should join a move by other states to change the statute of limitations that keeps survivors of long-ago child sexual abuse from suing former priests, victims’ advocates say.
Removing the limitation, or temporarily reviving expired cases, would be the “most effective short-term step” lawmakers could take to help victims — the vast majority of whom struggle with trauma for decades before they are able to report the abuse — as well as uncover other abuses, said David Clohessy, of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“There are predators who remain under the radar around kids, despite having hurt many, simply because they’ve run out the clock,” he said.
The call for more flexibility in civil lawsuits — which has faced strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and other organizations — comes as Missouri and other states across the U.S. have this year documented more allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy.
Dioceses and religious orders across the country have shared the names of a total of more than 5,100 clergy members, with more than three-quarters of the names released just in the last year. The revelations follow a Pennsylvania grand jury report that uncovered decades of abuses and cover-ups involving hundreds of priests.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis, in July and August, released the names of 66 accused clergy, including 63 with credible allegations of sex abuse of a minor and three who had possessed child pornography. Of the 66, 26 men had never been publicly identified before by the church, in court records or in news reports, according to a Post-Dispatch review.
In September, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced his office had identified 163 priests in all four dioceses in Missouri who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children. Of the 80 men who were still alive, 46 could not be criminally prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired, Schmitt said. Twelve cases would be referred to local prosecutors, he said.
Statutes of limitations have long prevented “the overwhelming majority” of child sex abuse victims from bringing their alleged abusers to trial, said Clohessy, who has testified in several states where lawmakers have considered legislation to extend or eliminate criminal and civil statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse or open temporary windows for people to file lawsuits.
California in 2003 became the first state to revise abuse statute of limitations by offering survivors a temporary window to sue, said Marci Hamilton, an expert on statutes of limitations and chief executive of CHILD USA, a national advocacy group that works to prevent child abuse and neglect. More than 1,150 lawsuits were filed, with 850 alleging abuse by Catholic clergy that identified about 300 accused priests, she said.
While other states considered similar measures, the last year saw 21 states and the District of Columbia entirely lift deadlines on child sex abuse victims suing for damages in court or open temporary windows for people to file suit, leading to hundreds of lawsuits. In New York more than 600 lawsuits were filed since the state opened a year-long window for civil suits on Aug. 14.
The trend was spurred by the renewed focus on clergy abuse, as well as allegations of sexual abuse of youth in other organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America, and by predators such as former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nasser and financier Jeffrey Epstein.
“This has been an extraordinary year for the victim’s access to justice,” she said. “We reached a tipping point.”
Those efforts have not gone unchallenged. Groups including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and insurance companies have all fiercely lobbied against changes to civil statutes of limitations, spending millions of dollars to fight the changes, according to an investigation published Wednesday by USA Today. Opponents have said the changes make institutions vulnerable to decades-old allegations that are difficult to defend or a mass of lawsuits that could deplete their finances.
But advocates say that eliminating time limits on civil lawsuits is necessary for victims of child sexual abuse who have no other recourse for holding abusers accountable.
Though states have in recent years eliminated time limits on criminal prosecution of sex crimes against children — including Missouri last year — those changes can’t apply retroactively. Supreme Court precedent says criminal charges cannot be filed in an old case if a reporting time limit for that case ever expired, said Camile Cooper, vice president of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
“The issue is one of life and liberty, and when you’re prosecuting someone criminally you’re removing them and putting them in prison,” Cooper said. “That’s a constitutional issue, whereas in civil cases you’re dealing with financial damages.”
The trauma endured by children who are sexually abused makes it difficult for many to report their abusers or publicly disclose the abuse for decades, Cooper said. Their abuser is often someone in a position of power and authority, and the victim fears reprisals from reporting the abuse.
Hamilton said the average age for child sex abuse victims to come forward is 52.
“They’re operating under some heavy burdens, and it’s likely not until their adulthood that they understood that they really did not have a normal childhood,” she said.
Missouri law did not specify a statute of limitations for civil suits against child sexual abusers until 1990, when the state required a lawsuit to be brought within five years of a victim’s turning 18 or within three years from when the person discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, that he or she was abused. Before 1990, the lawsuits were subject to a five-year limitation on personal injury suits.
The statute was extended in 2004 to require that a person suing for damages from childhood sexual abuse file suit within 10 years of turning 21 years old or within three years of when the person discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, the abuse.
Currently, Missouri falls in the middle of states with more restrictive statutes of limitations and those with less restrictive laws, Hamilton said.
The limitations have posed a challenge for most victims suing clergy, said St. Louis attorney Ken Chackes, who, with Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles, has represented more than 100 people reporting child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
The two attorneys together have won more than $4 million in settlements with the Archdiocese of St. Louis for about 70 victims both in and out of court, but say current law limits clients’ ability to hold abusers accountable or win more compensation.
“In cases where we have been able to go to court and not have the statute of limitations be a bar, people have a much better chance of recovering a reasonable amount of money to compensate them for the harm that was done,” Chackes said.
Allowing victims to file civil lawsuits at any time also helps prevent future abuses by identifying the abusers, Cooper said.
“No matter at what point a victim comes forward, it’s important to allow them to come into the justice system because when they seek justice, they’ll be helping to remove an offender off the street,” she said. “That’s the best tool you have for preventing sex crimes.”
Missouri removed its criminal statute of limitations for sexual offenses involving children 18 years old or younger under a bill introduced last year by state Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton. Previously there was a limit of 30 years from the time the victim turned 18 or within three years of the crime.
“It’s my view that people who commit sex crimes against children should never rest easy based on a technicality,” Sifton said. “They should know that they can always be brought to justice.”
But attempts failed in recent years to permanently remove the civil statute of limitations. Sifton and former Reps. Brandon Ellington and Clem Smith, both Democrats, encountered opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature by the Missouri Catholic Conference, the legislative arm for the church in Missouri. A bill introduced by Ellington in 2013 stalled after it was approved by the House; other bills since have not made it past legislative committees.
Ellington, who left the Legislature last year to become a Kansas City councilman, said sex crimes against a child are “a lifetime sentence.”
“They often carry that abuse with them throughout the entirety of their lives,” he said. “So they should be able to seek justice anytime in their lives.”
Smith, who left the Legislature last year, said the opposition to bills they filed was to prevent institutions paying more money in damages in civil lawsuits.
“You’re trying to budget damages for wrongdoings that you’ve done,” he said. “You can’t put that on a spreadsheet.”
Chris Nuelle, spokesman for Schmitt’s office, said Friday that the attorney general supported the 2017 bill removing the criminal statute of limitations but said it would be up to the Legislature to decide whether to change or lift the civil statute of limitations.
The Missouri Catholic Conference testified against efforts to remove the civil statute of limitations because it could open the church to lawsuits that are difficult to defend because of a lack of evidence or clear memory, said director Tyler McClay.
“At some point, it becomes unjust because there is no due process,” McClay said. “The evidence is so old and the witnesses’ memories have faded (so much) that it just becomes unfair. That’s been the rationale for statute of limitations throughout history.”
But the conference would be open to “reasonably” extending the limitations, McClay said. Regardless, he said, the church will help victims with substantiated abuse allegations who come forward, regardless of whether they file suit.
“They’re not going to bar them from getting some kind of relief in the current process,” McClay said.
As for opening a temporary window for people to file suit, the Catholic Conference would be more accepting if it included public institutions, he said.
“We don’t own this issue,” he said, citing high-profile non-Catholic cases such as Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky. If it involved public and private institutions, assuming there wasn’t a constitutional issue, it would be easier for us not to oppose it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.