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Here’s a disturbing estimate: roughly 90 percent of all childhood sexual abuse goes unreported.
The reasons for that are numerous and complicated. But Rosanne Sliney understands why. She’s a Waltham native and says she was sexually abused by her uncle from age 5 to 14. Sliney now says she wishes she could prosecute. But she can no longer do that under Massachusetts law, which has a statute of limitations on bringing criminal charges in cases involving the sexual abuse of minors.
There’s a bill pending to eliminate that statute, however, and on Tuesday the Legislature's Judiciary Committee reported the bill out favorably, meaning it will now go to the full House for debate. If it becomes law, it would make child sex abuse the only crime besides murder that has no time limit on filing charges.
WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer recently spoke with Sliney and asked her to explain why it can take so long for people who’ve been sexually abused to come forward.
Sliney: It takes years because you’re stripped of all your values. And the older you get, the more complicated it gets because you’re an adolescent. Adolescents just have a hard time as it is being awkward and fitting in, and when someone is abusing you on top of it and there’s no one protecting you, you really feel alone. I kept silent for 24 years.
"For every person that’s been abused, their abuse is different, their healing is different, and nobody should put a clock on anybody for that."Rosanne Sliney
Pfeiffer: What was the impact on you of keeping that secret, of feeling like you had to hold it inside?
It was horrible. I slowly began getting panic attacks. I struggled with an eating disorder. I felt so ugly and so ashamed and I didn’t want to be around people. I lost connections with friends, I lost my career, I went down a dark road that was so dark and so hard and so lonely. I feel like he hurt me very deep to the soul, so basically I was left with nothing inside.
Why do you think that deadline on bringing charges, that statute of limitations, should be eliminated?
On my 43rd birthday my clock ran out, and I was nowhere close at that time to do what I’m doing today. So now I’m 48 and I’m ready to speak and I have evidence and Massachusetts is silencing me. For every person that’s been abused, their abuse is different, their healing is different, and nobody should put a clock on anybody for that.
In Massachusetts, the deadline for bringing charges in child sex abuse cases used to be 15 years after your 16th birthday. A few years ago that was extended to 27 years after your 16th birthday. There are some legislators that feel like that should be enough. I take it you don’t think that’s long enough?
It’s not. I mean, it’s like a childhood disease given to you. When you’re healing from cancer or any other childhood disease, there’s no clock. It’s not like if you’re not healed by your 21st birthday then you get no more treatment. People that have been traumatized to the extent of being a victim of child sexual abuse do not think, while they’re in that crisis of having panic attacks or night terrors or that self-hate and shame — they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, OK, I’m 16 so, all right, I’ve got three years. I’m going to get it together so I can bring this guy to court.’ No, it doesn’t happen that way and there should be no time limit.
Part of the reason for having a deadline on when charges can be brought is that over time memories fade and potential witnesses die, and that can make it much harder to bring a case and to prove what happened. How do you counter that argument?
Well, you know what? It’s like any other crime. If there’s evidence, it goes to court. If there’s no evidence, then it doesn’t. The reason why people are coming forward now is because it’s less scary. You have the priest abuse, you have Penn State, you have the Red Sox — who would have ever thought Fenway? Scott Brown came forward. Abolish the statute of limitations and let people come forward when they’re ready. The criminal ones will go to the criminal courts, the civil ones will go to the civil, and the ones without any evidence probably won’t make it anywhere.
Backers of this bill say that it would reduce the number of sexual offenders in Massachusetts. Would you explain why they say it would have that effect?
Each predator — they don’t stop at one person. There are cases that go from 100 victims to 300 victims. I mean, these people need to be off the street and they need to have some severe treatment instead of protecting the perpetrator and have victims in treatment.
This program aired on March 20, 2012.
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