I was sexually abused when I was a child. I have written about that before, in very limited fashion.
Writing about it again invites reliving the terror at the time and agonizing aftereffects that, to this day, twist my life in weird ways.
But acknowledging the abuse also sharpens my viewpoint about what the Pennsylvania Legislature is debating these days: Whether to extend the normal statute of limitations so that victims of sexual abuse by clergy (primarily Roman Catholic priests) can sue to get compensation and/or to hold accountable the abusers and the church officials who covered up their crimes.
My abuser was not a priest or minister. He was an adult that a child should have been able to look to for protection, guidance and comfort. To quote from “Forrest Gump,” the movie “That’s about all I got to say ‘bout that.” The experience is enough, without the details.
But I do have something to say about extending the statute of limitations: Don’t.
We can’t get justice by committing an injustice.
Victims who now seek to be able to file lawsuits have to be adults, people in their 50s or even older. Younger people had, and still have, recourse under existing law.
I have no sympathy for child abusers or for those who aid them or cover up for them. I hope the unrepentant ones rot in hell.
But suppose someone falsely accused me of rape 40 years ago. That would have been when I was age 36. Where was I at age 36? That would have been 1978.
The entire year of 1978 is a blur to me. Second marriage, five children, long-hours job, coaching Little League, spending more than we were earning (lots of kids will do that), etc.
Where was I on a given day or night in 1978? How the hell do I know? And how would anyone else remember? Some who might have been able to do that are dead, or unfindable in Florida retirement homes. What are their memories like?
Since 1978, I have moved three times. I got rid of most old records: Income tax forms, year-by-year weekly planners, bank cancelled checks and receipts.
I probably could not prove where I was or was not at a certain hour on a certain day in 1978. I certainly could not prove a negative. The evidence isn’t there.
So how could I possibly get a fair trial? How could anyone mount a defense?
It is those kinds of impossible predicaments that statutes of limitations prevent.
A fundamental principle of American law is the legal presumption of innocence — and something else. We also believe that it is less bad to allow a few guilty people to escape punishment than it would be to force innocent people into prison, bankruptcy, all the consequences of losing in court when it is impossible to fairly defend.
I understand the anguish felt even today by victims of sexual abuse. I also understand that no amount of money will take away that anguish. Holding a perpetrator accountable can bring relief. Seeing a perpetrator banished from a position of power can bring vindication.
My perpetrator is dead. In a way, I am happy about that. His being dead probably means that I won’t spend the rest of my life in prison — because, yes, I just might shoot him were I to see him again today. The trauma across 65 years is that strong, for me and for other victims, including those violated by clergy.
The finality of my abuser’s death means that it is now up to me to decide whether I will control the rest of my life, or whether I will allow that violation of myself to ruin it. To be honest, it’s a bit of both these days. I go for months on end without thinking about that horror. Then something happens, like the current proposal to change the law. The trauma all pops out. I have to again try to push it back into the box of do-not-disturb bad memories.
If holding my abuser accountable were possible, what would I gain at this late date? Justice? Or revenge?
I honestly don’t know. For me, that is a “what if” question. For victims of abuse by clergy and cover-up by an institution that still exists, the question resonates in real time.
Do we get justice if the deck is stacked against our adversary?
In our sympathy for victims, should we wipe out the statute of limitations, allowing still more victims to seek still more money, more vindication?
I take a deep breath, reflect, say a prayer, and come to my own conclusion: No. Others also breathe deeply, pray, and conclude differently: Yes.
I can only speak for myself. I could not obtain vindication, compensation or closure by being unjust.
Justice for anyone must be based on justice for all. It must be as fair to the accused as it is to the victim. Two wrongs cannot make something right.
[Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, and former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator. He lives near Brookville. Email: email@example.com]