In Wisconsin, those who have experienced sexual assault as children have two paths of recourse: they can make a police report and pursue criminal charges or sue in civil court for damages.
But both of these options have time limits, known as statutes of limitations, which bar some victims from bringing cases to court.
There is no statute of limitations for criminally prosecuting someone for having sexual contact or intercourse with a minor under the age of 13, according to state law. For a sexual assault against a minor under the age of 16, the alleged crime can be prosecuted until the victim reaches the age of 45.
For civil cases, there are different sets of time limits to seek legal recourse. A person who, as a child, has experienced sexual assault by an adult, has until they are 35 years old to bring a case.
State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, wants to eliminate that restriction and is pushing for passage of the Child Victims Act, a proposal that failed to pass in the Legislature at least four times. The proposal would also open a three-year window during which victims barred under existing limitations could file lawsuits.
She also wants make clergy mandatory reporters of sexual abuse, exempting only abuse reported through official religious ceremonies. Those ceremonies would include Catholic confession, which Catholics consider a sacrament.
She is pushing those changes in a separate bill. She filed both bills Wednesday.
Changes to Wisconsin’s statute of limitations for civil sexual abuse cases are important because the civil courts offer victims more control over the trajectory of cases and are often the last legal recourse they have, said Ian Henderson, director of legal services for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“There is more control for a survivor. They don’t have to rely on a prosecutor to make decisions, to make those charging decisions and prosecute the case,” he said. “It is an opportunity to get justice and shift the cost of childhood sexual abuse where it belongs, which is to offenders.”
Wisconsin is one of nine states that have drafted language that would eliminate the statute of limitations for such cases, he said. Questions about the statute of limitations on civil cases for sexual assault in Wisconsin and what that means is the most common technical legal assistance question the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault gets, he said.
Here are some questions and answers about Taylor’s bills and those who endorse and oppose them.
What are the bills and what would they do?
The Child Victims Act would abolish the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases. It would also remove a time limit to bring a case in civil court under a broad range of actions, including negligence, which is currently barred as a cause of action in church sex abuse cases in Wisconsin. The bill would also give victims three years to bring forward cases that were previously prohibited because of the earlier statute of limitations.
The Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act would require that clergy report instances of child abuse and remove an exemption in current law that allows clergy to not report abuse that is conveyed in private conversations.
Why do some feel there should be changes to the laws governing when clergy need to report alleged sexual abuse?
Taylor, other lawmakers and advocacy groups, including the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and the National Association of Social Workers in Wisconsin, say that current law functionally exempts clergy from reporting allegations of sexual abuse, because of a 2003 law that allows reports of abuse relayed in private conversations between congregants and clergy to be kept private.
Current law essentially does nothing because it offers a huge loophole for clergy, Taylor said.
"This is a shroud of secrecy, this statute," she said in an interview. "It has to be changed. I'm outraged by the fact that our statutes allow cover up of abuse by clergy."
According to a Legislative Council analysis of that law, “a clergy member is not required to report information regarding suspected sexual abuse that is obtained solely through confidential communications made to the clergy member privately or in a confessional setting if he or she is authorized to hear or accustomed to hearing such communications and, under the disciplines, tenets, or traditions of his or her religion, has a duty or is expected to keep those communications secret.”
Those disciplines, tenets, or traditions relating to confidential communications don't need to be in writing, making it even less effective, Taylor said.
Rep. Chris Taylor, Sen. Lena Taylor and Rep. Melissa Sargent all support changing the law to remove that exemption and have argued that it largely guts the intent and enforcement of mandatory reporting by clergy.
Who opposes that change and why?
Three major church groups in Wisconsin are not supportive of the Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act. The Wisconsin Council of Churches, which represents most mainstream Protestant denominations in the state; the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church and Wisconsin Family Action, which advocates on behalf of many Christian evangelical denominations, all oppose changes to the mandatory reporting laws for clergy. They disagree with Chris Taylor's analyses of current law and say they have all respectively implemented policies and procedures to report and prevent sexual abuse in their congregations.
In a joint letter to Rep. Chris Taylor, the groups said they oppose the changes and said that the current law “unambiguously protects the pastoral effectiveness of clergy, as well as the trust of individual believers who, under the disciplines, tenets, or traditions of faith, have an expectation that certain communications will be kept private.”