Legislation to Protect Minors Introduced: Statutes of Limitation on Sex Abuse Would End

By Janet I. Tu
The Seattle Times [Seattle WA]
Downloaded January 18, 2003

Spurred in part by the Roman Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal, members of the House this week introduced bills designed to better protect minors and to make it easier to prosecute and file suits in such cases.

The bills would eliminate criminal and civil statutes of limitation on incidents of childhood sexual abuse and would require clergy to report any suspected incidents of child abuse or neglect.

Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, introduced House Bill 1040, eliminating civil statutes of limitation on incidents of childhood sexual abuse. If it passes, suits could be filed any time alleging acts of sexual abuse of a minor that are committed in 2004 or later.

O'Brien's bill does not include a provision that would allow such suits to be filed for incidents that occurred before 2004. Some victims' advocates here had wanted such a provision. In California, for one year starting this month, plaintiffs can file suit alleging childhood sexual abuse no matter when the abuse occurred. Hundreds of lawsuits are expected.

Currently, Washington's civil statute of limitations dictates that a lawsuit must be filed either within three years from the time of the last alleged act, three years from when a victim discovers or remembers that such an act happened, or three years from the time a victim realizes that it damaged his life.

Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, introduced House Bill 1089, eliminating the criminal statutes of limitation on prosecuting incidents of childhood sexual abuse. Such offenses would join murder and vehicular homicide in the list of crimes that would have no state time limit on prosecutions.

Currently, the state's statutes of limitation vary in sexual-abuse criminal cases, depending on the age of the victim. For cases involving children under 14, the cutoff date for bringing criminal charges is three years after the victim's 18th birthday or seven years after the last act, whichever is greater. For victims who are 14 or 15 years old, the time limit is three years from the commission of the last act.

In Washington, sexual abuse of a minor can be prosecuted only if the victim is younger than 16, unless the perpetrator has a "significant relationship" with the minor. That means someone who professionally or voluntarily provides education, health care or welfare services, among other things, to minors, or someone who supervises minors.

Like O'Brien's bill, Ahern's bill, if passed, would apply not just to religious institutions, and would apply only to acts committed in 2004 or after.

"This is not a Catholic clergy bill or anything like that," Ahern said. "It's encompassing for everybody. Obviously, last year or so, it was pretty high-profile. But it's something that's gone on for years and years. And I sincerely believe that if we eliminate the statute of limitations, it would be a major deterrent for this sort of crime."

A third bill, House Bill 1054, introduced by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, would add clergy to the list of those professions required to report to civil authorities any suspected child abuse or neglect. Many churches, including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, already require this of their employees. Knowledge of suspected abuse acquired during confession or similar confidential talks would be exempt from this requirement.

State law requires those in many professions — including psychologists, licensed child-care providers and teachers — to report such suspicions, but a requirement that clergy do so was taken out of state law in the mid-1970s.

Various state senators have expressed interest in introducing similar bills later in the session.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or


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