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Reforming Statutes of Limitations: justice shouldn’t have an expiration date

Prevent Child Sexual Abuse Programme / Partner story

Image courtesy of Miguel Hurtado

When Miguel Hurtado was 16, he was sexually abused by a priest at his Catholic youth group. It took Miguel two years to tell his parents. Yet once he came forward, the Church pressured his family into staying silent. Miguel was left to deal with his trauma alone.

By age 22, Miguel finally felt strong enough to take legal action himself. But, it was too late. Lawyers informed him that Spain’s statute of limitation for prosecuting child sexual abuse required victims to press charges no more than “three years after maturity”. Miguel had missed the deadline by a year.

Worse, he learned that the priest who had abused him had been abusing other children for decades. “If others could’ve come forward, I may not have been abused,” he says. “But statutes of limitation say that no matter how much evidence you have that you have been the victim of a child sexual abuse crime, you cannot prosecute after a certain arbitrary time frame.”

Statutes of Limitation (SOL) are legal deadlines implemented in civil and criminal courts around the world. Although they are intended to expedite and curtail excessive litigation, their time limits prove catastrophic when applied to child sexual abuse cases.

Because of the intimacy, secrecy, and shame surrounding child sexual abuse, most survivors take decades– not years – to come to terms with the crimes committed against them. Globally, studies show that the average age of survivors who speak out is 52. Some 30 per cent of child sexual abuse survivors never disclose their experience at all.¹

By restricting the window in which child sexual abuse victims can take legal action, SOLs result in a perversion of justice: they deny survivors their voice, power, and recourse, while enabling predators and reckless institutions to act with impunity for decades.

“If survivors can’t testify, perpetrators can stay off sexual predator registries and continue working with children for years,” says Miguel.

For this reason, survivors around the world are working to extend or fully revoke SOLs. Miguel is one of the survivors leading the movement to reform SOLs and protect children worldwide. To this end, he started a campaign to reform the criminal SOLs in Spain. In June 2021, this campaign delivered 567,000 signatures to the Spanish Parliament. As a result, the government amended the criminal code to give survivors of child abuse 17 additional years to sue.

Miguel is also a member of the Brave Movement, a global movement of survivors and allies striving to end childhood sexual violence. He also co-chairs a working group on justice with CHILD USA, a US-based think tank fighting for the civil rights and the prevention of sexual abuse of children. Both organisations are striving to repeal SOLs for child sexual abuse cases worldwide.

Oak supports several partners working to end SOLs, including A Breeze of Hope Foundation, which works to bring healing and justice to the lives of those affected by childhood sexual violence, and Equality Now, which advocates for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls. Thanks in part to their efforts and the work of many other survivor activists and allies, some 32 countries² have now abolished criminal SOL.

While the call to abolish SOLs is compelling, changing the law requires empirical evidence and legal arguments. CHILD USA leads the SOL reform movement in the US, and more recently, globally. CHILD USA conducts legal and social science research to provide data and evidence-based solutions for policymakers, governments, legal teams, and activists. Through its data and engagement with lawmakers and survivors, CHILD USA promotes three major SOL reforms for child sexual abuse: 1) elimination of all criminal SOLs; 2) elimination of all civil SOLs; and 3) revival of all expired civil claims through ‘revival’ laws.

“By reforming the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases, we can make a big difference,” says Professor Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of CHILD USA. “We shift the cost of the abuse from the victims to the ones who caused it.”

Since CHILD USA’s founding in 2016, 123 child sexual abuse SOL bills for both civil and criminal proceedings have been enacted into law in the US. This means that SOL laws have been reformed for future cases in both criminal and civil proceedings. It also means that a longer window of time for bringing civil claims in historic cases has been granted. As a result, perpetrators of child sexual abuse can be held accountable for their actions, even if the crimes took place several decades ago. So far, 18,000 survivors of child sexual abuse have achieved justice through the revival of civil SOLs. Professor Hamilton’s writings, along with CHILD USA’s team testimony, its social science research, its written materials, and its SOL tracker – that gives weekly updates on SOL reforms – have been instrumental in every effort.

The Brave Movement
The Brave Movement, which also works to abolish SOLs, has teamed up with CHILD USA and its CHILD GLOBAL arm to promote SOL reforms internationally. Since 2022, Miguel Hurtado and Prof Marci Hamilton have been co-chairing the Global Abolishing Statute of Limitations Task Force. Through this, the Brave Movement has been mobilising its survivor-leaders to support ongoing efforts of both national- and global level stakeholders.

In July 2023, CHILD GLOBAL and the Brave Movement issued a report called ‘Justice Unleashed: Ending Limitations: Protecting Children’, which calls for abolishing SOLs for all child sexual violence and abuse in Europe. Its ‘European Statute of Limitations Report Card’ documents the tiered system of justice in Europe, where SOLs are so arbitrary that child sexual abuse victims’ recourse is sometimes “determined by zip code”. The report identifies countries where reforms are most urgently needed and offers blueprints for ways forward. By the end of 2024, there will be a comprehensive report developed covering all the aspects of SOL in Europe.

‘Justice Unleashed’ is an invaluable tool for advocates and activists. They use it to press for reforms of SOLs in France, Spain, and at the Council of Europe. Activists working with France´s Independent Commission on Incest and Sexual Violence Against Children (CIIVISE) have used the report to recommend abolishing criminal SOLs for child rape and sexual assault. In Spain, the report has helped convince the Catalonian Parliament to consider passing a bill to abolish criminal SOL in regard to child sexual offences, punishable by a maximum sentence of five years. If it goes through, people will be able to press charges against perpetrators of sexual violence, even if it happened in their childhood. The task force is currently developing a report of Latin American countries, backed up by a detailed report on the status of SOL. The task force ultimately hopes to expand its SOL dashboards and toolkits for activists in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

A Breeze of Hope Foundation, and Equality Now In South America, two Oak partners, A Breeze of Hope Foundation and Equality Now, have been at the heart of a groundbreaking court case that stands to improve the legal rights of child sexual abuse victims internationally.

A Breeze of Hope Foundation was founded by Brisa De Angulo, a lawyer and activist, who is also a founder of the Brave Movement. Brisa’s journey began when she was 15 and an adult cousin raped her. For many years, Brisa fought to bring her abuser to justice in Bolivia – with no success. Finally, she took the Bolivian judicial system itself to court. Supported by Equality Now and a strong legal team, Brisa filed a case against the state of Bolivia with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In January 2023, the court issued a landmark ruling in the case. It called for the elimination of SOLs, along with many other reforms required to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. This ruling has widespread implications. It not only applies to the Bolivian Government and law enforcement, but it sets a legal precedent for the entire region. Advocates in other countries in the jurisdiction can now cite the case’s legal principles and arguments in making cases for their own governmental reforms.

Together, Oak’s partners are working to ensure that for survivors of child sexual abuse, justice no longer has an expiration date. You can find out more about our strategy on our website.

¹ Child USA, Delayed Disclosure factsheet
² These countries are: Canada, United States (federal government), Mexico (federal government), El Salvador, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Iceland, Ireland, United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Switzerland, Serbia, Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia, South Africa, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand.