Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert leaves the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse after being sentenced to 15 months in prison on April
"As a 17-year-old boy, I was devastated. … Today I understand that I did nothing to bring this on, but at age 17 I could not understand what happened or why."
At 53, Scott Cross had waited more than three decades to talk to anyone about the incident in which, he said, his high school wrestling coach sexually molested him. By the time he shared his story — with family, prosecutors and then to a packed courtroom — his alleged sexual abuser, Dennis Hastert, had escaped prosecution.
Yes, the former coach and U.S. House Speaker was prosecuted, but on a relatively minor financial violation — a wrinkle in the high-profile case that has renewed debate in Illinois and other states over the statute of limitations for cases involving sexual abuse of children. U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin addressed the missed opportunity when he sentenced Hastert to 15 months in prison for making illegal bank withdrawals that prosecutors discovered were part of a hush-money agreement with one of Hastert's victims.
"Because the statute of limitations for your child molestation ran out many years ago, you can't be charged for that," Durkin said at the April 27 sentencing. "And I can't sentence you as a child molester. It's not what you were charged with, it's not what you've pled guilty to, and any sentence I give you today will pale in comparison to what you would have faced in state court."
Prosecutors shared Durkin's frustration, saying they would've pursued molestation charges if the statute of limitations hadn't expired.
Why then, many citizens ask, is there a statute of limitations at all on crimes so potentially damaging to young lives?
A partial answer is that Illinois sort of removed the statute of limitations on sex abuse crimes against children a few years ago. That was in reaction to the priest abuse scandal within the Roman Catholic Church that resulted in hundreds of allegations stretching back decades. In 2013, then-Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that removed the statute of limitations on sex crimes against children — but only for cases in which there is corroborating physical evidence, or in which a mandatory reporter (such as a teacher or counselor) failed to report the abuse.
But few cases meet those criteria. So the exceptions created a loophole: They leave most abuse cases subject to a statute of limitations that gives a victim only until he or she is 38 (20 years after he or she turns 18) to file a complaint.
Compared with other states, Illinois' "until age 18, plus 20 years" law is generous to victims. Only a handful of states have no statute of limitations on felony sex abuse against children. Laws in other states vary widely, though, and it's unusual to find statutes of limitation that extend beyond a victim's 28th birthday.
On the heels of the Hastert case, victim advocacy groups are urging Illinois lawmakers to eliminate the loophole that has kept a statute of limitations for most, but not all, cases. Attorney General Lisa Madigan wants to close the gap, and we support her efforts. Her office proposed legislation Monday that would eliminate the statute of limitations for all of the serious sex offenses, including criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse, when committed against someone under 18 years of age.
Effectively, the move would eliminate the statute of limitations for cases in which the current legal time limit hasn't yet expired.
First, consider what closing the loophole would not do: It would not, for instance, allow Scott Cross or any of the other Yorkville High School wrestlers who might've been molested by Hastert to pursue charges against him. The statute of limitations in effect when that abuse happened would still stand and cannot be changed. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Strogner v. California that a law enacted after expiration of a previously applicable limitation violates the Constitution's ex post facto clause.
It also would not likely usher in a wave of child sex abuse allegations. Without physical evidence and corroborating witnesses, child sex abuse cases are extremely difficult to prosecute. Eliminating the statute of limitations might compound prosecutors' difficulty of proving he-said-she-said cases; defense attorneys will tell judges and juries that too much time has passed to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
But here's what closing the loophole would do: It would leave open to those who are under 38 now (because the statute of limitations isn't expired yet), and who were abused as children, a legal path to justice indefinitely, without the narrow requirements of corroborating evidence or failure to report. That is, a cluster of ex-wrestlers could belatedly discover that all of them had been abused — and convince law enforcement of a pattern of abuse by their long-retired coach.
Ending the statute of limitations would recognize what experts on child sexual abuse have learned: that many victims are simply unable to deal with, let alone talk about, the abuse they suffered as children until much later in life.
"The science suggests that most of these people are just incapable of coming forward earlier," Marc Pearlman, a Chicago attorney who represents victims in civil cases, told the Tribune. "If you have a statute of limitations where 99 percent of the crimes can't be prosecuted, there's a problem with the statute of limitations."
Consider that there will always be other Scott Crosses — individuals who at 30 or 35 years old may be nowhere near acknowledging abuse that happened when they were young, but might reach that point at 45 or 53. Illinois should allow those victims to pursue a legal path, if they choose to, as difficult as it may be.