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Op-ed

Prevention, healing and justice are all needed to address child sexual abuse | GUEST COMMENTARY

Delegate C.T. Wilson speaks during the Maryland General Assembly at the Maryland Statehouse on Feb. 27 in Annapolis. (Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu).

“It’s about time,” I thought when I learned Maryland Sen. Will Smith, Democratic chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he would support legislation allowing Maryland survivors of child sexual abuse the ability to seek redress for their abuse regardless of when it happened. The bill has repeatedly passed the House of Delegates only to be killed in Smith’s Senate committee, amid strong lobbying efforts paid for by the Maryland Catholic Church to limit lawsuits by abuse survivors. Now, the bill sponsored by Del. C.T. Wilson has a real chance of becoming law.

The proposed legislation, previously known as the Hidden Predator Act, would create a look-back window, where survivors have two years from the act becoming law to file a lawsuit, no matter when their abuse took place. Currently survivors of child sexual abuse in Maryland have until their 38th birthday, or three years after their abuser was convicted in criminal court, to file a lawsuit against their abuser.

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Passing this legislation in 2023 would help so many individuals who experienced child sexual abuse seek some measure of justice. This includes the more than 600 people identified by the Maryland Attorney General’s office as having been sexually abused and tortured by Catholic priests and officials assigned to the Archdiocese of Baltimore; the abuse is detailed in a yet-to-be-made-public report.

National and global child sexual abuse efforts focus on three broad areas: prevention, healing and justice. The proposed look-back period provides an additional avenue for justice. We also need increased efforts to support the healing of child and adult survivors of sexual abuse. Yet, when it comes to preventing child sexual abuse from occurring in the first place, we still have so much more work to do. This is especially true for schools and other youth-serving organizations, like those run by the Catholic Church, which are supposed to be safe and nurturing places for kids — not places where children experience harm.

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At the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, we have spent 30 years studying how child sexual abuse is preventable. Specifically, we have found that although reactive strategies will always be part of the solution, they cannot be our only solution. We need to invest in prevention by learning what works and making those resources available.

Nearly 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the United States will become victims of child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse places kids at greater risk of mental, physical and behavioral health problems associated with increased morbidity and mortality, and reduced quality of life. The U.S. economic burden of child sexual abuse was $9.3 billion in 2015, costing each victim more than $280,000 in lost earnings and other economic impacts over their lifetime, my research found.

Preventing child sexual abuse means developing, testing and implementing programs and policies that are truly effective at keeping children safe from abuse. We have so few prevention resources available that we know work. That’s why evaluating programs is especially important. When we understand what works to keep children safe, we can share this knowledge more broadly.

For example, the Moore Center has worked closely with a number of national youth-serving organizations to understand their child sexual abuse prevention policies and efforts. Informed by this work, we created a desk guide that outlines eight core principles for organizations to use to protect children from sexual abuse. Additionally, the center recently evaluated a new school-based prevention program that shows promise educating young adolescents to identify and report child sexual abuse behaviors, and to actively prevent these behaviors as well. We are now seeking to rigorously test the program in more schools.

Steps to make it easier to hold abusers accountable for harming children are important. However, we also need to ensure that we are researching, identifying and implementing ways to prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place.

Elizabeth J. Letourneau (MooreCenter@jh.edu) is the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


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