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More States Relaxing Statute of Limitations for Sexual Abuse Claims


Sexual abuse of children is the most insidious type of crime because it produces harms that often do not manifest themselves until years after the abuse occurred.

For this reason, the crime usually goes unreported until after the state statute of limitations (SOL) for bringing a lawsuit has expired, leaving the victim no legal recourse to seek recompense from the civil justice system.

However, as a result of growing awareness about the nature of sexual abuse and its lingering effects, as well as widely publicized cases involving pervasive abuse within high-profile organizations, some states including Illinois are making changes to their laws in order to allow victims their day in court.

The Law in Illinois for Civil Claims Related to Childhood Sexual Abuse

Before 2017, Illinois’ statute of limitations barred claims for childhood sexual abuse 20 years after the survivor reached age 18, or five years after they discovered that sexual abuse occurred and caused them injuries. This law replaced a stricter two-year statute of limitations in 2003.

In 2017, to better protect victims and afford them relief for their harm, Illinois completely eliminated any statute of limitations for child sexual abuse and assault. This means that if the abuse happens after this change in the law, the abused victim has no deadline to bring a lawsuit.

However, if the abuse occurred before 2017, the survivor still must bring a civil case before their 38th birthday or within five years of when they realize they suffered harm as a result of sexual abuse. The SoL is tolled (or suspended) in the case of “fraudulent concealment” and several other exceptions, described in the statute:

“when the person abused is subject to threats, intimidation, manipulation, fraudulent concealment, or fraud perpetrated by the abuser or by any person acting in the interest of the abuser” (735 ILCS 5/13-202.2)

Since these exceptions apply to many cases involving the Catholic Church and other institutions, in which systemic cover-ups of abuse existed for many years, this provision has allowed many Illinois victims to obtain justice who otherwise would have no legal recourse. In addition, since many if not most child sex abuse cases involve some degree of manipulation and intimidation on the part of the abuser, this opens the door for even more victims to have their day in court.

But as illustrated below in the case Doe v. Hastert, even these exceptions couldn’t always protect victims.

Illinois Among States Relaxing or Eliminating Deadlines for Sex Abuse Claims

In eliminating its SOL for child sex abuse, Illinois joined a handful of states around the country that have enacted similar measures to allow victims to seek justice long after the events occurred.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, a new California law potentially affecting thousands of residents allows child sex abuse victims more time to report allegations of abuse and take legal action.

California’s old law had been similar to Illinois’—alleged victims of abuse had until age 26 to file a lawsuit, or three years from the time they discovered that psychological injury was caused by sexual abuse suffered as a child.

The new California law signed by Gov. Newsom, which takes effect in 2020, raises the statute of limitations to 40 years of age, or up to five years after discovery. But unlike Illinois, the law also opens a three-year window that allows survivors of any age to sue on all previously expired claims.

The new law, according to the L.A. Times, “is expected to result in an avalanche of litigation aimed at indelible institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America, as well as local school districts, foster care agencies, hospitals and youth sports organizations.”

New York and New Jersey passed similar laws earlier in 2019. New York’s new law raised the age limit that plaintiffs can file civil lawsuits for childhood sexual abuse to 55 years old from 23. It also allows anyone of any age one year to  bring a case from the past in a “look-back” window, which could result in a flood of lawsuits against institutions such as the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, and schools.

Other states such as Maine, Delaware, and Utah have completely abolished civil statutes of limitations in these cases.

The Changes Aren’t Welcomed by Everyone

While victims’ advocates hail these measures, they are not without controversy. Some say it is unfair to the accused to require them to defend against accusations many decades old, and that evidence could be lost over time while key witnesses can forget events or even die.

Meanwhile, some warn that schools and other organizations may go bankrupt and cease operating if required to make large payouts to great numbers of victims, and that it could become impossible for them to purchase insurance.

Some California insurers have indicated they might withdraw from the state or refuse to insure parties and organizations for such claims.

For these reasons, former California governor Jerry Brown had refused to support relaxing the state’s SoL.

One of the groups that could be severely impacted is the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), which has been rocked by lawsuits and allegations including the 2012 public release of its so-called “perversion files,” a database of about 5,000

Scout leaders who’d been blacklisted by the organization because of reports of child molestation from 1947 to 2005. BSA was ordered to pay over $18 million to a victim in a 2010 Oregon case that was the largest-ever punitive damage award for sexual abuse.

A newer group called Abused in Scouting has over 1,200 members nationwide who are reported to be preparing lawsuits against BSA, the vast majority of whom are accusing alleged Scout abusers not named in the database and who were previously unknown.

Why the Laws Needed to be Changed

The 2017 court case of Doe v. Hastert (2019 IL App (2d) 180250)—in which a now middle-aged male plaintiff unsuccessfully brought a civil complaint against former Illinois congressman Dennis Hastert for a sexual assault he alleged occurred when he was a boy—perfectly illustrates the failings of the old statutes of limitation.

The Illinois courts dismissed his claim because it was not brought within the then-statute of limitations ending two years after the plaintiff’s 18th birthday or two years after he discovered he was harmed by the abuse.

Further, the court agreed with the defendant that Doe had had ample opportunity to sue long before he did, even though he claims he was personally threatened by the defendant as a child, and again as a 20-year-old when he brought his accusations to the then-State’s Attorney, a friend and associate of Hastert who threatened Doe with slander charges. Doe could not prevail on his fraudulent concealment claim because he couldn’t prove that Hastert had sanctioned this threat made on his behalf.

In fact, Doe’s unsuccessful attempt to bring the crime to the attention of the State’s Attorney in 1984 actually hurt his civil claim, because the court noted that it proved he was aware of the harm done to him but still waited several decades to bring suit. Doe claimed that it wasn’t until other accusations against Hastert were made public that he felt safe in coming forward.

It’s important to be aware that even with the relaxing or abolishment of filing deadlines, all child sex abuse accusers, or plaintiffs, still must prove their case in court by meeting the criminal and civil standards of proof. The loss or destruction of key evidence and witnesses over time could make this more challenging.

If you or your child have suffered sexual abuse or exploitation at the hands of anyone employed by a church, school or other organization, you could have a claim against not only the individual perpetrator, but against the entity itself. Illinois law holds that all parties responsible for causing bodily injury will be “jointly and severally” liable for the plaintiff’s costs.

Multiple defendants could all owe you the full amount of your damages for medical care, psychological treatment, inability to work and other losses you suffered. Suing more than one party for sex abuse could result in greater compensation for the victim and also serve to hold institutions accountable for employing and protecting predators.

For additional information on these cases please refer to: