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Are statutes of limitations in child sex abuse cases too limiting?

Judge Thomas M. Durkin came down hard on Dennis Hastert, giving the former U.S. House speaker more prison time than prosecutors requested for financial crimes related to Hastert's sexual abuse of a former student.

Yet in a way, the judge pointed out, Hastert got off easy.

"Because the statute of limitations for your child molestation ran out many years ago, you can't be charged for that," Durkin said during 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."

Statutes of limitation cap the length of time during which authorities can charge someone with a crime. It's meant as a check on prosecutorial power and a safeguard against imperfect memories, but in the wake of the Hastert case, some say the sexual abuse of a child should be an exception.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan wants the General Assembly to remove the statute of limitations for sex crimes against a child. That limit is already much longer than for other crimes, but Madigan said the unique circumstances of child sex abuse justifies the change.

"To say to someone we aren't even going to look at this because it happened long ago, all that does is potentially allow the perpetrator to remain in our society," she said. "We know that people who do this are recidivists. Failing to identify these (abusers) only increases the number of people whose lives are disrupted or destroyed."

For most felonies, Illinois law allows prosecutors to bring charges three years after the offense was committed. But for sex crimes against a child, a victim can seek justice for 20 years after he or she turns 18 (the limit doesn't apply if a mandated reporter, such as a teacher or doctor, failed to come forward, or if there is physical evidence of the crime).

Polly Poskin of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault said people victimized as children often need many years to come to terms with the abuse.

"People in positions of authority are often who abuse children," she said. "They have so betrayed the victim's trust and sense of safety that it's really hard to sort out who you could trust, where you would be safe."

She pointed to the example of Scott Cross, who testified that Hastert molested him in 1979 when he was a member of the Yorkville High School wrestling team.

"As a 17-year-old boy, I was devastated," Cross told the judge. "I tried to figure out why Coach Hastert had singled me out. I felt very alone and tremendously embarrassed. I felt intense pain, shame and guilt. … I've always felt that what Coach Hastert had done to me was my darkest secret."

Madigan's proposal comes as some congressional lawmakers also seek to change statutes of limitation on child sex crimes.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., recently introduced a bill that would give people until age 28 to sue those who sexually abused or exploited them as children. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has proposed giving federal grants to states that eliminate statutes of limitation applying to the crimes.

Northwestern University law professor Ron Allen, while taking no position on Madigan's plan, said there are good reasons to keep the limit.

He noted a spate of cases in the 1980s and 1990s in which people "recovered" memories of supposed abuse that happened years earlier. Prosecutors sometimes used those memories to win guilty verdicts, only to see the cases unravel when the recollections turned out to be faulty.

"There's literally no solid data of this phenomenon of repressed memories," Allen said. "It was just a bunch of bunk. Many lives were destroyed when a rational person can only believe that these repressed memories were false."

And as difficult as it can be to prosecute long-ago crimes, defending against such allegations also is challenging: Suspects can be forced to provide an alibi or supporting witnesses for something that happened decades earlier.

Madigan, though, said getting rid of the limit would encourage state's attorneys to investigate old claims, even if they end up deciding not to bring charges.

"(Abusers) are within a community," she said. "It's relatively easy to figure out who would have been around the person at that time. Maybe one of those people does have evidence."

Marc Pearlman, a Chicago attorney who represents sex abuse victims in civil court, said false claims are exceedingly rare. Most victims never tell anyone about their abuse, and the few that do often need decades to work up the courage, he said.

"The science suggests that most of these people are just incapable of coming forward earlier," he said. "If you have a statute of limitation where 99 percent of the crimes can't be prosecuted, there's a problem with the statute of limitation."

Wyoming has no statute of limitation for the sexual abuse of a child — or for most any other crime. That allowed Steve Weichman, the prosecutor in Teton County, to charge former Winnetka teacher and Boy Scout leader Bill Bricker in 2014 with molesting children in the 1960s and 1980s at a Wyoming summer camp.

Weichman said there was no physical evidence in the case, but multiple allegations convinced him the claims were credible. Bricker died last year before he could be brought to trial.

Weichman said removing the statute of limitation for child sex crimes would create challenges for Illinois prosecutors: Old allegations are difficult to prove, and opting not to file charges could subject a state's attorney to intense criticism, he said.

Still, he said it was a change worth making.

"Taking the statute off the books is going to make life harder for prosecutors, but you are going to be unable to deal with the Bill Brickers of the world until you eliminate that," he said.

Tim Berg, who said Bricker molested him decades ago during a Boy Scout camping trip in a Cook County forest preserve, never explored the idea of seeking charges against him in Illinois, but said others should have that option.

"I have dealt with it the way I needed to, psychically and spiritually, so I feel I've been healed and don't need retribution," said Berg, 63. "But I do feel (an abuser) needs to face his accusers. I think that's an important part of bringing justice."

Chicago Tribune's Christy Gutowski and William Lee contributed.

jkeilman@tribpub.com

Twitter @JohnKeilman

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