Despite revelations of pervasive child sexual abuse that have come to light in recent decades, the Legislature has not provided victims more time to seek justice in civil court. This makes the state a national outlier and cries out for reform.
Legislators have not since 1991 modified the law that gives victims of child rape in Washington only three years of adulthood — until their 21st birthday — to sue attackers and hold accountable an irresponsible institution, such as a church or youth group. The same law allows another three-year window when a victim realizes that childhood abuse caused a harm, such as an addiction.
Victims of child sex crimes deserve more time to grapple with trauma and contemplate a public lawsuit. The vast majority of states, including Oregon and Idaho, have laws that provide at least a few years longer. The nonprofit Child USA traces a national reform movement on this issue to 2002, the year The Boston Globe brought to light the Catholic Church’s systematic concealment of abusers.
Since then, 38 states and Washington, D.C. have expanded the time victims have to bring lawsuits. Ten states have eliminated the civil statute of limitations entirely, Because these laws are not retroactive, 16 states have given all past victims a temporary window to file child sex-abuse lawsuits. The Washington Legislature should consider both policies.
Marci Hamilton, Child USA’s chief executive officer, said extensive national coverage of sex-abuse cases against Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and Larry Nassar, the Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor, as well as the #MeToo movement, helped drive sex abuse law changes in 20 states in 2019 alone.
Washington counts in that number because the Legislature this spring eliminated statutes of limitations on criminally prosecuting those who sexually abuse children. The civil liability remained static, as it did during a 2013 expansion of prosecutors’ ability to go after child rapists.
“Washington has been behind the curve for a long time,” Hamilton said.
Michael Pfau, a Seattle plaintiffs’ attorney, has filed hundreds of child sex abuse cases against the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Boy Scouts, Washington state and other institutions. Pfau said he relies heavily on the three-year window that starts with realizing a harm and turns away many victims who can’t find a way to fit their situations into it.
“Most people do not report child sex abuse until they’re in their 40s and 50s,” Pfau said.
The Legislature should give Washington’s abuse victims better legal standing in civil court. No bill has been filed in Olympia to expand limitations on child sex abuse lawsuits since 2013, when a civil change was stripped out of the criminal-law reform bill. Since then, the Seattle Archdiocese in 2016 disclosed the names of 77 clergy and other officials accused of abuse, and other institutional failures of young charges have come to light.
The victims deserve a chance to seek justice.