Friday, March 11, 2011

Statute of limitations
Sex abuse law offers imperfect solutions

5:00 AM, Mar. 11, 2011 | 1Comments
Sexual abuse scars and haunts children for a lifetime, so why shouldn't the statute of limitations for prosecuting this crime last equally as long?

Such was the debate this week when Oregon lawmakers opened the first public hearing on House Bill 3057, which would end the time limits for prosecuting sex crimes against minors. The testimony was vigorous, and the hearing spilled over into a second day.

Rep. Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, one of the bill's sponsors, didn't dub the legislation the Goldschmidt Bill, but he could have.

Indeed, Neil Edward Goldschmidt could be the poster boy for this crime.

He was the 41st mayor of Portland, the 33rd governor of Oregon and the nation's sixth secretary of transportation. But all of his political accomplishments take an archival backseat to his infamy for having sex with a 14-year-old girl he knew when he was the 35-year-old mayor. Because the state's statute of limitations had expired by the time Goldschmidt in 2004 provided his white-washed "confession" to The Oregonian (just ahead of Willamette Week's Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé of the scandal), he escaped prosecution for the felony crime.

Today, the 71-year-old recluse reportedly divides his time between Oregon and France, presumably collecting federal and state public-sector pensions and health benefits paid for by the rest of us.

His victim? Unnamed, she died in January at the age of 49 in hospice care after being ill for 18 months. Her life had been saturated with alcohol and drug abuse, and she lived with a fragile and often-slipping hold on mental stability for the near 35 years of silence she had imposed on herself since Goldschmidt first laid his slimy hands on her young body in the late '70s.

It hardly seems fair, does it? But such is the unique nature of sex abuse. Unlike murder — considered the most serious of crimes — when most times there is a body to examine and it's apparent a crime of trauma has been committed, sex abuse is an insidious and invisible crime. Its perpetrators are crafty and cunning, and almost more dangerous because of their sly and intimidating ways. The crime lingers long after it has been committed, and the violation burdens its victims forever, forcing many of them to live a life of shame, silence and humiliation.

Knowing this, it's easy to call for shredding the paper that the current law is printed on. Expanded in 2009, Oregon law currently allows victims of sex abuse to file charges within six years of the crime's commission, or if the victim at the time of the crime was younger than 18 anytime before the victim turns 30 years old, or within 12 years after the offense is reported to a law-enforcement agency or the Department of Human Services. Crimes include rape of varying degrees, sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration, encouraging sex abuse of a child, incest and promoting prostitution. The law also mandates that the statute of limitations is not withstanding if there is DNA evidence of the crime.

Opponents of the bill, which include the American Civil Liberties Union and the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, understand the easy and quick emotional public reaction, and do not for a second support allowing child molesters to run amok.

But they believe there are better deterrents than a lifelong threat of prosecution. Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the ACLU of Oregon, pointed out that the human justice system works to protect the innocent, and that HB 3057 would tip the scales against the innocent.

"What we need to do is fix what is broken now, and that's that many childhood victims of sex abuse don't have the information about the statute of limitations," Andrea Meyer said. "Rather than expand the existing law, we should be working to educate therapists, counselors, psychiatrist, teachers, clergy, law enforcers and others working with victims of sex abuse so that they know to come forward in a timely manner."

Andrea Meyer said extending the limit raises serious concerns about an innocent person's ability for self defense. She said evidence can degrade or be lost over time, witnesses die or can't be located, and due process starts to be compromised.

Gail Meyer (no relation to Andrea Meyer), a legislative representative for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in Eugene, said jurors in these types of cases are always hungry for tangible evidence because typically, the longer the time since the alleged crime, the greater the difficulty in producing evidence.

"I've had cases where all we produce is a cell-phone bill, but the jurors jump on it and say 'thank you' because they're desperate for something other than 'he said, she said.' Everyone is well served by the prompt reporting of sex abuse," Gail Meyer said. "In tolerating delays (extension of statute of limitations), those interests are lost for everyone — guilty or innocent. It then becomes just one person's word against another."

Knee-jerk reactions seldom solve problems.

Rep. Hunt admitted that the Neil Goldschmidt child sex-abuse story had less to do with his need to see the law changed as did revelations by Catholic Church and Boy Scout members still crippled by the adult betrayers of their youth decades later.

Surely there must be a middle ground to ensure that predators such as Goldschmidt and people less well-known don't go free, while at the same time people innocent of wrongdoing don't have their right to protect themselves curtailed.

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