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New Hampshire eyes lifting time limits on sex abuse claims

February 20, 2020 GMT

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Sexual assault victims deserve the right to come forward when they are ready, survivors and other advocates told lawmakers Thursday in support of repealing New Hampshire’s civil statute of limitations for such cases.

“We stand on the precipice of an important opportunity to open the door to justice for victims of sexual abuse,” said Lyn Schollett, director of the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Under current law, civil claims must be filed within three years of an assault if the victim was an adult, or by the victim’s 30th birthday in cases involving children. The bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee would eliminate those timelines.

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Schollett said repealing the statute of limitations would help identify otherwise hidden predators, shift the cost of abuse from victims to abusers and contributing institutions, and prevent future abuse by educating the public. And such measures are gaining momentum — at least 15 states have revised their laws in the past two years extending or suspending statute of limitations to allow child sex abuse claims.

Some states have established “lookback windows” in which people can sue no matter when the alleged abuse occurred, while others have raised the age limit for such lawsuits. Neighboring Vermont eliminated its age limit last year.

No one testified against the New Hampshire bill, which has the support of Gov. Chris Sununu if it makes it through both the Senate and House. Supporters included abuse survivors, several of whom gave emotional testimony about being assaulted by clerics, family members and in one case, a stranger on the campus of a private prep school.

“Other states that have abolished or increased the statute of limitations in these cases acknowledge the reality: that the effects of trauma are long lasting, life altering and take time for an affected individual to unpack and understand, let alone act on,” said Julia Gray, who said she was assaulted at age 15 at Phillips Exeter Academy.

The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual assault, but those who spoke at the hearing have gone public with their stories. David Ouellette said he was in his 40s when he first told his wife in 2002 he had been raped by a priest at age 15. The prospect of testifying before lawmakers brought up a lot of trauma and even caused him to start having night terrors again, he said.

“But this is a way for me to take my life back and continue my healing,” he said.

The committee also heard from attorneys who have represented abuse victims and a psychologist who treats victims and said eliminating the statute of limitations would help chip away at a culture that silences victims.

“They’ve all said, ‘I want to be believed,’” said Elizabeth Howell Woodbury. “To put a time limit on it — I don’t see the logic in that, and I think that makes us complicit.”