OLYMPIA – After years of lobbying by local victims of childhood sex abuse, state lawmakers and the governor have changed Washington law to allow prosecutors several more years to go after rapists and molesters.
Senate Bill 5832 extends the statute of limitations on child sex abuse crimes from the victim’s 21st birthday to age 28.
“I’m happy to see this pass,” said former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett, who has pushed lawmakers for years to eliminate any statute of limitations in such cases. “It’s certainly a compromise, but it’s better than nothing.”
As things stand now, predators and molesters can essentially run out the clock, waiting until enough years pass that they can no longer be prosecuted.
“Why shouldn’t we be able to go after child molesters for the rest of their lives?” Brockett asked. Under federal law, Brockett said, there is no statute of limitations for child sex abuse.
Beth Bollinger, a Spokane attorney who traveled to Olympia this year to urge lawmakers to pass the bill, said that it often takes years for children to overcome the shame of the abuse and muster the courage to report it.
“Too often, children blame themselves for sex abuse way into (their) adult life, or imagine they are isolated and alone,” she said. That allows abusers, who rely on that secrecy, to move on to other victims.
Bollinger points to the case of Patrick O’Donnell, a former Spokane priest accused of repeatedly molesting numerous children. O’Donnell, who has admitted to molesting dozens of teen boys over three decades, cannot be charged or prosecuted. The statute of limitations ran out years ago.
Local lawmakers, including state Sen. Chris Marr and former state Rep. John Ahern, tried to do away with the statute of limitations in recent years, only to run into resistance from other lawmakers and some victims advocates and prosecutors.
It does no good, some opponents argued, to wrongly give victims false hope of prosecuting a case decades after the fact, as documents are lost and memories fade. And defense attorneys argued that it would be extremely difficult to defend an innocent person in such cases.
“Who could imagine that protecting today’s kids from pedophiles by giving yesterday’s victims a chance to grow up and realize the harm and speak up would be controversial. But it was,” Bollinger wrote on a personal blog tracking progress of the bill this year. Even if a prosecution doesn’t result in a conviction, Brockett said, it can serve as a warning to the community about a potential pedophile.
“Because they normally don’t stop,” he said.
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