An Iowa Senate subcommittee approved Senate Study Bill 3032 on Tuesday. It’s a bill that allows an information or indictment in a criminal or civil action for damages for sexual abuse in the first, second or third-degree to commence at any time after the commission of the offense.
“This is something that, I’ll have to be honest with you, I’ve errored in the past,” said Sen. Brad Zaun. “Leader (Janet) Petersen, you and I have had a lot of conversations through the years. I’m excited that we’re having this conversation.”
Petersen said Iowa is behind other states in protecting children and survivors of sexual abuse, though she has concerns about leaving adult survivors out of the bill. Still, she said it’s a step in the right direction.
David Moeller spoke first, saying he has direct experience with the process. He said he was charged with false allegations of child sexual abuse and it took two and a half years to fight the charges.
Much of that time was spent working to obtain records and documents.
“It was because of the lower level of expected evidence related to the charge of child sexual abuse that these charges went forward and I spent a significant part of my life and my fortunate fighting these charges,” he said. “By extending the statute of limitations, it reduces the chance of someone who is falsely accused from being able to get the evidence they need to defend themselves from what, in many cases, feels like a sense of guilty until proven innocent.”
Rita Carter of the Iowa Conference of United Methodist Church said she’s heard from women in the church who have gone through “years, years, and years, and years” of abuse before they talk about it. She supports the bill.
Karl Schilling of Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance said he believes the statute of limitations works well when talking a discrete act that happens and doesn’t happen again.
“Pedophilia is very different,” he said. “It’s not a discrete crime. It’s very rare a person who is a pedophile has one victim. The sexual abuse of children usually involves what we call grooming. And this is essentially brainwashing where the child becomes convinced that it’s a consensual act. It can take years of therapy for the person to realize that it wasn’t their fault.”
Matty Tate-Smith of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault said the organization also supports the bill.
“We know that the statute of limitations will often times prevent sexual assault cases from being prosecuted in spite of existing evidence and confessions,” Tate-Smith said. “We support legislation such as this that would provide additional options for survivors who may choose to come forward later in life.”
Emily Piper of the Iowa Association of School Boards said the organization is undecided.
“Our biggest concern with an unlimited time period is the ability to defend yourself that far down the road,” Piper said. “School employees will have changed over, documents may have been lost — that’s our reason why we’ve generally been comfortable with some kind of statute of limitations.”
Brad Epperly of the Iowa Defense Counsel Association said the group has concerns about third-party liability.
Rhonda Martin, who is running for the Iowa Senate, said she came to the meeting to observe, but felt compelled to comment.
“I don’t want to become the poster child of this, but I actually have personal experience on this issue,” she said. “When I was a child, eight years old, and I never went anywhere with prosecuting or whatever, it was a cousin. It just the one time. And, I would have to say that if you do not extend the statute of limitations, you’re taking away the power from these powerless children.
“These things happen to them when they are children and it takes a long time to digest it. I digested it and I’m not letting it hold me back from anything, but it is also my choice whether to pursue a case or not. I took a long time to get to this point where I’m free and able to talk with this group about it.”
Kelly Meyers of the Iowa County Attorneys Association is registered undecided. She said they’ve seen bills similar to this in the past and, while they appreciate another tool being in the toolbox to seek justice for children, they’re concerned about the ability to find witnesses or evidence years later.
“It’s just a concern that we would give false hope, possibly to people years and years later, when they work through these issues and come forward with their case,” Meyers said.
Sen. Dan Dawson said he was glad to sign on in support.
Petersen added she’d like to see the bill change a bit, but noted it’s a good start.
“Our law is definitely tough on kids and they’re tough on people who have been sexually abused and their light on the perpetrators,” she said. “It’s time that we join other states in moving forward with better laws to protect people and help uncover the hidden predators living among us.”
Zaun said the last thing he wanted to do is cause more situations like that of Moeller.
“But right now there is no hope for the victims,” Zaun said. “We don’t want to give false hope. I think this is a really important first step. A lot of these sexual attacks are suppressed. Ultimately, you’ve got to have the evidence to go to court, to get the prosecutor to take your case. That hasn’t changed here.”
What has changed, he added, is currently there are so many years to report the crime.
“I am very enthusiastically supporting this,” Zaun said. “This is something we’ve talked about for many years and I’ve dropped the ball on it in the past. This is a priority for myself, to get this done.”