Report: why we must end statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse

© UNICEF/UNI409284

Childhood sexual violence occurs at an appalling scale. In Europe, an estimated one in five children are subject to some kind of sexual violence in their lives – translating to over 16 million children affected in the 27 EU member states alone. 

Stigma, shame, trauma and fear can keep survivors silent, especially while they are still young. 

A statute of limitation of a crime defines the maximum amount of time a victim can wait before starting legal proceedings against the perpetrators. Setting this limit for survivors of childhood sexual abuse means that many do not recieve justice if they can’t speak up in due time. A new report by Brave Movement and CHILD Global explores why the criminal statutes of limitation (SOL) for child sexual abuse crimes should be abolished across all member states of the Council of Europe, so that every survivor gets justice at any time. 

Delayed disclosure of abuse 

Many different factors influence the length of time a survivor waits before disclosing childhood abuse. Victims might be too young to even understand the extent and implications of what has happened to them. Many times, the perpetrators are known individuals – intrafamilial abuse or having a close prior relationship with the perpetrator have been found to be associated with longer delays in disclosure of abuse. 

Newly acquired evidence of past crimes is also common. And evidence shows that victims often take decades to process the trauma and contact civil authorities about the crime they suffered.

It is common for victims not to disclose the abuse at all or to do so only years or decades after the crime occurred, when the victim is already an adult. And when they do – there need to be systems in place to ensure that justice is delivered.  

A scorecard across the continent 

The new report has studied and categorised where various European countries stand with regard to the statute of limitations. It illustrates the tiered system of justice that survivors face, and highlights those countries where changes are most urgently needed.

The best performing countries (Grade A countries) are those which have no statute of limitations for all/most child sexual abuse crimes. These include the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Denmark, Belgium, Georgia. Many others have SOLs that come into effect after the victim turns a certain age (40 or 50 years old). The worst performing countries (Grade F) have criminal statute of limitations that are set into place as soon as  sexual offense against a child was perpetrated, irrespective of the age of the of victim at the time of reporting. These include Portugal, Lithuania, Finland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia - Herzegovina, Albania, Moldavia, Armenia, Azerbaijan. 

According to the report, the current regional systems can hide perpetrators and endanger children. It describes the phenomenon of “postcode lottery” for victims of child sexual abuse in Europe – which means different laws and different justice depending on where they might live. It mentions “archaic and arbitrary” criminal statutes of limitations vary across European countries and can stop people from speaking up and not deliver justice even when they do. 

The report highlights several advantages of eliminating the statute of limitations, including reducing the risk of perpetrators repeating the crime, and increasing public awareness due to more disclosures of abuse 

Recommendations for EU states

The main recommendation of the report is to amend the Lanzarote Convention to include an Optional Protocol to achieve better justice across all member states. The Convention is the Council of Europe’s convention Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse. The report finds that current policy norms in the Convention falls short of abolishing the statute of limitations and gives a generic mandate to Member States to ensure victims have “sufficient” time after reaching the age of majority to report the crimes – but it does not provide certainty. 

For immediate action by countries, the report recommends the elimination of limitation periods for at least the most serious child sexual abuse offences and minimum limitation period till the survivors turn 50 for the remaining offences. It also recommends a specific criminal norm that interrupts the statute of limitations when a child sex abuser reoffends. 

This is also something that survivors of childhood abuse are actively advocating for. Adult survivors of childhood sexual violence from the global Brave Movement are calling for   prevention, healing and justice and campaigning so that ending violence is high on the global agenda. 

Watch their panel at the Together to to #ENDviolence Leaders’ Event where they spoke alongside heads of state, UN leadership, children, and civil society.  

Read the full report ‘Justice Unleashed’ here.