Shining a Spotlight on Child Sexual Abuse

By State Senator Julie Lassa

For me, some of the most poignant moments in the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight are the scenes in which adult victims of child sexual abuse speak of the experiences they’ve been keeping secret for years.  Based on a true story, the movie makes clear that the shame and anger that are so often the result of child sexual abuse can last for many years and change the victim’s life.  The film accurately portrays the emotions of adult survivors, which I have heard in the many conversations I’ve had with them over the years.

As the movie demonstrates, in most instances, the perpetrators of sexual assault are not strangers to the victim, but someone the victim knows – often authority figures like parents, relatives or youth activity leaders.  Reporting this crime means not only reliving one’s own humiliation, but can potentially turn the victim’s world upside down.  This is especially true for children, who are the victims in two-thirds of sexual assaults.

For all these reasons, authorities estimate that sexual assault is among the most underreported crimes.  According to the U.S. Justice Department, 74 percent of completed and attempted sexual assaults against females are not reported to law enforcement.  It can take years for victims to come to terms with what has happened to them and to find the courage to talk about it.

Over the years, I have advocated for public policy that understands and respects the unique challenges that sexual assault victims face in reporting these horrific crimes.   Wisconsin's current arbitrary deadline for bringing civil action against child abusers does more than just rob child sexual abuse victims of their day in court.  It endangers every child in our community, because it decreases the likelihood that people who prey sexually on children will be identified and stopped.   And we know that pedophiles, if given the opportunity, will continue to seek out new victims.  Research has shown that these child molesters and rapists will have over 80 – 100 victims during a lifetime and will continue to victimize children well into their 60s and beyond.

To help sexual assault victims overcome these hurdles, I introduced the Child Victims Act, which entirely removes the civil statute of limitations on child sexual assault, so pedophiles would no longer be protected by a legal “home free” date from facing their victims in court.  The bill also provides a three-year window in which a person who is currently arbitrarily barred by the statute of limitations from bringing a suit would be allowed to bring their charges forward. 

In California, where a similar time window for retroactive suits was enacted, 300 previously unknown child sex abusers were identified as a result.   The Child Victims Act will enable victims of sexual abuse to have their day in court and hold more offenders accountable for their actions, preventing them from preying on other innocent children.

The Child Victim’s Act will help the victims of sexual assault attain justice for the crimes that were committed against them.  At the same time, they will aid the process of identifying perpetrators so that they cannot create more victims.  Although the bill is supported by advocates for sexual assault victims, it did not pass the Legislature this session.   Nevertheless, I will reintroduce it and continue to fight for its passage, both on behalf of the victims of child sexual abuse, and to prevent this tragedy from damaging the lives of more children.