Last Thursday, something historic happened: The Governor signed into law a bill giving survivors of sexual child abuse much more time to bring law suits against their abusers. The bill, of which I was the lead senate sponsor, had previously cleared both branches of the legislature with unanimous votes.
Sexual child abusers steal children’s souls and it often takes decades for survivors to gain the insight and regain the self-respect necessary to fight back against their abusers. The old law, which generally required survivors to take action by the age of 21, effectively deprived many survivors of any legal remedy.
Tens of thousands of survivors across the Commonwealth, whether or not they are in a position to press legal claims, should take heart knowing that the elected leadership of the state respects them and supports them in their recovery. Estimates and definitions vary, but surveys suggest that perhaps 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men experience sexual child abuse.
I stood behind the Governor as he signed the bill. I looked out across the room filled with survivors. Many of them had spent years advocating for extension of the statute of limitations. Their pride and relief gleamed through their tears as the Governor, in a final way, recognized and legitimized their efforts.
What I processed afterward was that essentially all of the survivors in the room were women. For two years, I had worked to put together support for the reform. A kitchen cabinet of child advocates supported and guided me and the lead House sponsor, Representative John Lawn, while we negotiated with institutions who were concerned to manage the financial consequences of law changes. With the exception of a couple of attorneys for survivors, all of the advocates were women.
It’s never easy for anyone to talk about surviving abuse. But it seems that more women have had the courage and capacity to lead on the issue by telling their stories repeatedly. Sexual child abuse is not about misguided love — for the abuser, it’s a compulsion and a power trip. And part of the harm of sexual child abuse is that, even as an adult, the survivor mistakenly feels responsible and ashamed. Owning publicly that one has been sexually abused may, perhaps, be more emotionally difficult for a man and also, perhaps, more risky, given the persistent stereotype that manhood means invulnerability.
I hope that the message of support we sent last week will help adult survivors of child abuse, both men and women, to shed remaining pain, shame and confusion about searing events in the distant past that were beyond their adult control.
I also hope that the extended statute of limitations will help to protect children in the future from abuse. Child-serving organizations will now own responsibility for sexual child abuse committed by their employees for much longer. They will need to insure against the increased risk of law suits for negligent supervision of employees. To limit that risk, insurers will force organizations to adopt generally-recognized best practices to reduce protect children. The resulting increased consciousness may also indirectly serve to reduce sexual child abuse in families.
There is more work to be done. As a legislator, I look forward to expanding a partnership with all concerned to continue to make our state safer for children.