Why is There Still a Statute of Limitations on Rape?

There's no statute of limitations on murder, and the same should hold true for rape, sexual assault, and child molestation.
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s.e. smith
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There's no statute of limitations on murder, and the same should hold true for rape, sexual assault, and child molestation.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Derkin just sentenced Dennis Hastert, the former Speaker of the House, to 15 months in prison for hinky financial activity (the layperson's term for "structuring" — withdrawing money in amounts below the threshold that triggers reporting requirements, but doing it often enough that something illegal is clearly going on). At the same time, he also referred to Speaker Hastert as a "serial child molester."

So why is he going to prison for financial misdoings, rather than the much more serious crime of molesting multiple students while coaching wrestling at Yorkville High in the 1970s? 

We can thank the statute of limitations for that — while we found out about the child abuse through the investigation of his suspicious financial activity, he can never actually be prosecuted for it, because the window of opportunity has passed. This is a grave injustice to his victims, many of whom have spoken out about it, including Scott Cross, who made public comments in court about the pain he's still experiencing, decades later. (n.b. — Normally I don't identify victims, but Cross has been outspoken about his identity and his decision to be open is a big contribution to breaking down stigma, which is why I'm naming him here.)

Sexual assault leaves a lasting legacy, and yet, under the law, it's treated like any other crime. In theory, a statute of limitations is supposed to prevent situations where people are slapped with charges unexpectedly, years after the fact, and it's supposed to encourage victims of crime to report early, while pushing prosecutors to develop and pursue cases quickly. It's also somewhat hard for people to defend themselves when years have lapsed, and evidence or witnesses can be difficult to locate. 

For rape, though, the standards are different, because this is an intimate, complex, personal crime — and nearly everyone argues that it's ridiculous to treat it as though it should fall under the same laws that protect, say, burglars. There's no statute of limitations on murder, and the same should hold true for rape, sexual assault, and child molestation. These are serious crimes and they should be treated seriously under the law — like, for starters, when victims do report, it would be awfully nice if their rape kits were actually properly collected and tested

The laws on the statute of limitations vary between states, and some actually do have progressive laws that allow for prosecution at any time. Specific exceptions to address the issues of child sexual assault, molestation, and incest are also present in some states, acknowledging that children in particular face barriers in reporting. But we don't have a consistent national policy, even in the face of repeated illustrations that we need to change the way we handle reporting and prosecution for sexual assault. Rapists and molesters need to know that wherever they are, we will find them, even if it's decades later, that they will always be held accountable for what they did. 

There's the Cosby case, for one thing, with many victims coming forward years after the fact because they felt at the time that reporting their assaults wouldn't have any results — they'd be dismissed or mocked, they'd never be able to defend themselves in the court of public opinion that vilifies rape victims, they'd never be able to take down a beloved pop culture figure. With more and more victims coming forward, taking courage from statements made by other women, the situation highlights the fact that people sometimes only talk about rape decades after the incident, because of shame, fear of retributions for reporting, and other social factors. 

The explosion of rape on college campuses is another sharp illustration — just this week, we're learning about a BYU student who is actually being punished for reporting her rape, while rape in the higher levels of academia is an ongoing scandal. These victims don't report because they're afraid of the consequences, because they see that other victims never receive any justice, because they know that rape culture will result in slut shaming and abuse from peers. Later, in positions of greater safety, they might be willing to report, but by then it's too late.

Or, for that matter, look to the scandal surrounding the Catholic Church and child abuse, in which systemic violations of children occurred throughout the world across the church at every level, and the church did nothing about it. While the church claims to be reforming its practices to address the problem, and there are obviously plenty of priests and officials who most definitely do not participate in child molestation and think it is abhorrent, there's a deep culture of tolerance for abusing children in the church. The church has at times tried to wrest control of it as an internal discipline matter, rather than something that should be investigated by law enforcement.

Rape culture is everywhere, and that's really evident in the fact that society still thinks it's acceptable to have a statute of limitations in place beyond which people cannot be prosecuted for sex crimes. 

Hastert says he feels "ashamed" about "mistreating" athletes, but as always in cases like these, there's a part of me that wonders whether he's more ashamed that he was caught than he is by what he did. Like many sexual assailants, he apparently felt so confident about not being caught that he went right on with his life. In his case, he pursued a career in the highest levels of government, and at one point stood closer to the presidency than many of us will ever begin to imagine. 

That his history of abuse came to light because of the money, rather than his victims, is telling. The people he hurt were afraid to report at the time — many youth don't identify what they are experiencing as sexual assault, or they're afraid of what rape culture will bring about. His victims, who were male and living in an era with very decided ideas about masculinity, knew that reporting carried serious social consequences for them — admitting to molestation and rape was and is a deeply shameful thing, and a culture of toxic masculinity makes it extremely loaded for young men in ways that are different from the pressures experienced by women. 

Hastert didn't get in trouble because he molested children. He got in trouble because he withdrew suspicious amounts of money with the goal of using those funds to make his victims stay quiet — ironically, a law he actually pushed through turned out to be the driving force behind his prosecution. Tragically, because his victims can't see him prosecuted in court for what he did to them, they're having to resort to other means, as in the case of Individual A, who is filing for damages on the grounds of "breach of contract," saying that he never received all of his hush money from Hastert. 

More than 40 people stepped up with "that's not the man I know" letters in support of Hastert, to say nothing of public statements. That's a particularly stark example of rape culture at work, that a rapist should become a respected public figure with an army of people behind him who will rush to his defense when people speak out about what they experienced. In this climate, the imperative for getting rid of the statute of limitations is painfully obvious. Victims need to have an assurance that their words will actually mean something to society.  

Speaking truth to power is always dangerous, and rape victims are inherently disadvantaged in a power dynamic that blames them for what happened to them. Whenever victims choose to report, they should be taken seriously, and they shouldn't be shamed for taking years to come to terms with what happened to them and speak out publicly. While simply being open about the experience of sexual assault can be freeing, the fact that rapists won't necessarily face legal penalties even as their victims are facing them down in the public sphere is heartbreaking, and unacceptable. 

Photo: Chase Carter/Creative Commons