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Many may never share their experiences. Some will, and they may seek justice through the courts decades after the abuse took place.
For many of these abuse survivors, a door to that justice is closed by statutes of limitations that restrict when cases of abuse can be heard.
Under existing state statutes, which were amended in 1999, civil remedies could be pursued for abuse dating back to 1987. The new law will remove the time limit entirely.
The bill isn’t likely to lead to a flurry of lawsuits as some feared. But, for some survivors, it offers the opportunity for justice for trauma that they endured decades ago.
“I can’t change my situation … I can’t change what happened in my childhood,” the bill’s sponsor Lori Gramlich told the Bangor Daily News. “But, I can make it better for others.”
Gramlich was sexually abused in the 1970s by her mother’s husband. He told Gramlich that he would kill her mother if she spoke about the abuse. He once held Gramlich, her mother and her sister at gunpoint.
Gramlich, who is 58, has spent years on “self work” to deal with her abuse and its impacts. She became a social worker.
She spoke publicly about her abuse for the first time during the legislative debate on her bill. Since she spoke out, three people have told her that they had also been abused as children.
The average age when child victims of sex abuse speak out is 52, Michael Bigos, a member of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, told lawmakers in March.
“The nature of child sexual abuse injuries frequently results in victims not coming forward for years or decades because of the psychological injury and victims’ survival instincts,” he said in support of the bill.
There are many reasons that abuse victims don’t speak out. When they are children, they often do not know how to talk about what is being done to them. They are often threatened if they speak out, as Gramlich was. They commonly feel shame and guilt, even though they have done nothing wrong.
And, worst of all, too many are not believed. Gramlich’s own mother, who was also a victim of domestic violence abuse, said her daughter’s words were “hearsay.”
While it opens the door to civil suits stemming from long ago abuse, Gramlich says her legislation is also about lifting a taboo about speaking of sexual abuse. The more that survivors are empowered to speak out, the more institutions can be held accountable, and, perhaps, abuse can be stopped before it happens.
The Catholic Church, which is dealing with ongoing revelations of priests abusing young children, opposed the law change. Bruce Gerrity, a lawyer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, warned lawmakers that the legislation would force defendants to respond to claims where it would be difficult, if not impossible, to gather information because of lack of documentation, memory loss and death. He also said that many institutions and individuals, such as doctors, camp counselors and teachers could be implicated.
The difficulty of defending alleged perpetrators is no reason to deny abuse survivors the right to seek justice.
With this new law, which will become effective 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, some sex abuse survivors will have a newly opened avenue to that justice.