Weeks after sexual abuse allegations embroiled the Penn State campus, Wisconsin legislators are seeking to reintroduce legislation providing broader opportunities for childhood victims to prosecute their perpetrators in court.
At a press conference held Tuesday, Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, and Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay, proposed reintroducing the Child Victims Act, which has previously been proposed twice.
Lassa said the recent incidents at Penn State University demonstrated the need to act now more than ever.
“The Child Victims Act gives us a tool to help reveal more of these criminals and keep offenders from preying on other innocent children,” Lassa said.
Current legislation dictates a victim cannot file for sexual abuse after the age of 35. Lassa said the Child Victims Act would eliminate the age limit and hence allow more victims to have their day in court.
John Pilmaier, director of the Wisconsin branch of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was also present at the press conference.
Pilmaier said childhood sexual abuse is an epidemic in Wisconsin, just as it is elsewhere in the country. He said the Penn State scandal provided insight on the national scope of the crime.
“Statistics show that before their 18th birthday, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be victims of sexual assault,” he said.
Pilmaier said it is clear that existing childhood sexual assault prevention laws are not doing enough to help keep children safe.
The Child Victims Act legislation failed both times it was previously introduced.
Pilmaier said the Catholic Church lobbied against the bill’s approval in the past. He said their main argument is the legislation would threaten smaller religious organizations, including local parishes.
“They acknowledge that they were guilty, but the expense of bringing restitution to the victims would be too much for them,” Pilmaier said.
Pasch also characterized childhood sexual abuse in Wisconsin as an epidemic, saying the bill would be important for preventing future sexual abuse cases.
“This bill would remove arbitrary barriers that prevent victims of these unconscionable acts from receiving the justice they deserve, while helping prevent more children from being subjected to sexual abuse in the future,” Pasch said.
Jay Heck, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause in Wisconsin, said having an age limit on victims of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits is unfair.
He said Republican opposition to trial lawyers instead of church resistance to the legislation may have caused the bill to fail in the past.
“I would think any religious organization would be sympathetic to a victim, no matter how old the victim was,” Heck said.
Heck also said it is an important issue for universities, especially in light of the Penn State allegations.
Heck said in a situation such as the one at Penn State, it would be unfair for victims who are only coming forward now to be prevented from bringing their case to court because of their age.
“Especially with the Penn State scandal, there ought to be a more favorable view and understanding of victims of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse,” Heck said.