Wisconsin laws need to be reworked in order to ensure that instances of child sexual abuse are reported to the proper authorities and to ensure that legal avenues are open for the victims of abuse to seek justice.
These are important takeaways from the powerful reporting by Capital Times investigative writer Katelyn Ferral in her “Stolen Childhoods” report. Published last week, Ferral’s article tells the stories of former members of a Pentecostal church on Madison’s east side who say that the church “concealed allegations of sexual assault among its congregants for over 30 years, and continues to perpetuate a culture of fear and control that fosters abuse.”
Ferral reported: “The Cap Times interviewed 13 people, four of whom said they were sexually assaulted and manipulated as children attending Calvary Gospel Church.” The women who described the abuse they suffered as children were courageous to come forward. Now, legislators must be courageous in responding to what has been revealed about the way in which our current laws fail the victims of abuse.
One failure has to do with the limits the state puts on the right of those who were abused as children to get justice as adults. As Ferral explained, “The alleged assaults occurred from the 1980s through around 2005. Some are beyond the state’s statute of limitations for criminal prosecution, which varies in Wisconsin depending on the age of the victim at the time of the alleged crime and type of assault committed.”
This can be addressed with simple legislation that has been proposed by state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and state Reps. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, and Melissa Sargent, D-Madison.
A description of the legislation explains: “Under current Wisconsin law, the right of childhood victims to bring legal action expires at the age of 35. This extends to victims of sexual assault, incest, and other forms of child sex abuse.” Their Child Victims Act would remove the time limit. Additionally, “it would allow for those who were unable to bring charges under the previous statute of limitations to seek legal action up to three years after the passage of the bill.”
Sen. Taylor is right when she says, “There should never be an expiration date on justice.” The state Assembly and Senate should act quickly on this important measure.
The legislative chambers should, as well, address the secrecy surrounding allegations of abuse. Existing state law permits clergy members who learn about allegations of sexual assaults on children to keep the information to themselves. That’s deeply problematic, as the secrecy could allow patterns of abuse to continue even after they are reported to trusted adults.
Sen. Taylor and Reps. Sargent and Taylor have proposed legislation that would do away with reporting exemptions for members of the clergy and require them to alert authorities regarding allegations of child sexual abuse.
We understand there will be resistance to this proposal. But Rep. Taylor is right to ask: “Are we going to stand with children who need us to act on their behalf? Or are we going to stand with pedophiles?”
Legislators need to recognize this stark choice and get on the right side of these issues. The state Assembly and Senate must put the laws of Wisconsin on the side of children who seek protection AND on the side of the victims of child sexual abuse who seek justice.
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