Another victim of child abuse

For far too long, the sexual abuse of children and young women has been given little attention by our society. As a result, many thousands of victims were scarred for life. Fortunately, that outrage is finally getting the attention it deserves, and those accountable are being brought to justice. Unfortunately, like many other issues of public concern, our desire to do the right thing is leading us to take the wrong action.

For as long as there have been courts of justice, there have been statutes of limitation for the filing of criminal or civil complaints. Statutory periods are often lengthy. In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitation for felony prosecutions is five years after the crime. The period for civil claims related to a contract is four years after the contract is breached. For most personal injury claims, the period is two years after the injury.

The purpose of these statutes is obvious. Criminal statutes require the government to file charges within a reasonable period of time after the alleged offense, so that the accused has a fair chance to defend themselves. Those who choose to file civil claims must do so before all relevant evidence has been lost, and the witnesses have died.

Unfortunately, in a “knee jerk” reaction to the complicated problem of abuse, many state legislatures have over-extended statutes of limitation. Those who champion these changes fail to recognize that statutes of limitation do not exist to deny justice; they exist to promote it. No judge or jury can be expected to reach a just result in a case where the relevant documents and witness testimony has all been lost to time. Since my first day of law school, I have been reminded that justice delayed is usually justice denied.

The scourge of child abuse has claimed another victim. The National Council of the Boy Scouts of America has announced that, in order to manage lawsuits seeking money damages for events which occurred decades ago, they must file bankruptcy. There is no suggestion that the Boy Scouts do not promptly pay their bills, nor that child abuse is widespread in that organization. Rather, the Boy Scouts simply cannot manage limitless exposure from a handful of lawsuits which claim money damages for events which may or may not have occurred, long after evidence was lost, and the witnesses died.

In the years ahead, many churches, youth sports organizations, and community groups will be forced to make the same bitter choice. We will see more announcements of bankruptcy filings by churches and non-profit groups, simply to permit them to continue their mission.

Those who stand to profit from lawsuits may claim that the answer to abuse is more lawsuits. It is not. The answer is to stop the abuse. The silence is over. Those who see something must say something. A great many local attorneys volunteer their time to help abuse victims obtain Protective Orders. The Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church both require all registered volunteers to take training in how to recognize and stop potential child abuse. Every non-profit organization which serves children must do the same. I only hope that the terrible sins of the past will not require that we bankrupt every non-profit organization in the future.

William P. Carlucci is past president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and past president of the Susquehanna Council Boy Scouts of America.