OPINION

System failure: How federal laws shield sexual predators like Dr. Larry Nassar

One of the most egregious barriers to justice for child sex abuse victims is short statutes of limitations.

Marci Hamilton
Opinion contributor

Last week’s report by the inspector general’s office confirms beyond a doubt that the FBI’s investigation of Dr. Larry Nassar fits squarely into the ever-growing paradigm of failures to prevent child sex abuse.

These survivors, like those abused in the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, have been traumatized and re-traumatized by three specific plagues our society inflicts on our children – and President Joe Biden and Congress must finally act to right these unconscionable wrongs:

Systemic failures leave children defenseless. The report confirms that the FBI sits squarely among the long list of institutions that failed to protect these young athletes. From the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, to coaches, gyms and even families, these disciplined, ambitious kids didn’t stand a chance against the likes of Nassar.

At CHILD USA, we formed the Game Over Commission of leading experts in the United States to assess how so many institutions could endanger children with this one predator, and we will release our report and recommendations in August.

The preliminary findings of our survey of Nassar abuse survivors are chilling: 42% were abused by Nassar more than 10 times, and 58% felt too confused to tell anyone. So much abuse and so little protection.

It is time for President Biden to convene a national commission on child sex abuse. The Department of Justice's report underscores the desperate need for focused, national attention on systemic, institution-based abuse.

Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman gives her victim impact statement, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, in Lansing, Mich., during the fourth day of sentencing for former sports doctor Larry Nassar, who pled guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault.

The Australian and Irish governments have done so, to great illumination. Our children deserve it.

Unfairly short statutes of limitations block access to justice. Making the system accountable requires, at a minimum, legal penalties. Nassar is in prison, but the many actors and organizations who let these kids down have been shielded in various ways.

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One of the most egregious barriers to justice for child sex abuse victims is short statutes of limitations, which stand in the way of both criminal prosecution and civil remedies in many states and for thousands upon thousands of victims.

The Nassar victims abused at Michigan State University would never have been able to sue for damages, but for the narrow window the Michigan Legislature passed for them specifically.

The hundreds abused in other states have been left to the vagaries of their local statutes of limitation.

We are in the midst of a vibrant movement for statute of limitation reform that is bringing justice to millions of victims. But access to justice varies widely, depending on the geographical location of the rape.

Without access to the courts, victims cannot get the truth to the public and are forced to bear alone the costs of the abuse, which on average can be $830,000 over the course of their lives.

We are working in every state to make these changes, but Congress can and must play a role by incentivizing the states to improve their statutes of limitations to speed these needed reforms.

Federal bankruptcy laws shield bad actors. One institution after another that imperiled children – from Catholic dioceses to the Boy Scouts and USA Gymnastics – later invoked federal bankruptcy law to protect their assets from the victims they created.

Victims are classified as creditors

The federal bankruptcy system is cold terrain for the victims, as it turns them into creditors and makes the debtor the focus of all proceedings. These Chapter 11 voluntary bankruptcies are intended to protect the entity’s assets and to prevent dissolution, not to ensure restorative justice. Therein lies the problem.

The bankruptcy proceedings re-traumatize victims who seek compensation for the harm done to them, as the bankruptcy courts require their participation by a certain date, and they have to recount in detail what happened to them, with no regard for whether they are ready or able to share their story or to survive the hurry-up-and-wait nature of federal litigation.

In addition, there is no requirement that they be allowed to read a victim impact statement to the court and the public. Nor is there a mechanism for them to receive a public apology from their abusers or the institutions that shielded them from justice.

Federal bankruptcy also does not produce the kind of discovery survivors could obtain if these cases were individually tried, which means the public does not get the benefit of learning all that it needs to know regarding how an institution endangered children.

Judges lack training in trauma

Federal judges are not trained in how to deal with trauma victims. Many try to do the right thing, but this is an arena where specialized knowledge makes a difference for the better, and a victim’s experience is determined by how a particular judge runs the case. Congress needs to amend federal bankruptcy laws as they apply to cases involving large numbers of child sex abuse victims.

Thanks to the Department of Justice, we now know for sure that the FBI was a cog in the system that endangered hundreds of talented athletes. It’s time for the United States to confront these three plagues with action.

Marci A. Hamilton is founder and CEO of CHILD USA and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.