AUGUSTA — Victims of sex crimes committed by a teacher, psychologist or other person in whom victims had placed their trust often need more time to come forward with criminal charges than the law now allows, supporters of a bill to extend the statute of limitations from six to 10 years told lawmakers Monday.
“To put a six-year limitation on that and say after that six years, oops, sorry, you can’t bring charges against that individual ... I think we need to give some serious consideration to lengthening this time,” Rep. Anne Haskell told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
The Portland Democrat received support from psychologists, social workers, sexual assault prevention activists and a woman who claims she was a victim of a therapist’s abuse. But others warned against tinkering with the statute of limitations, which protects against errors in the criminal justice system.
Haskell’s bill seeks to extend the statute of limitations in criminal prosecutions for crimes involving unlawful sexual touching; unlawful sexual contact; sexual abuse of a minor; and rape or gross sexual assault if the actor has authority over the victim. Examples of a person of authority are therapists, teachers, social workers and coaches. Some committee members expressed concern about the inclusion of employers as well.
Extending the statute in criminal cases is needed because it’s not unusual for victims of illegal sexual contact to bring charges against a therapist or other trusted person of authority for 10 years after the offense, said Sheila Comerford of the Maine Psychological Association, which supports the bill.
“The sexual abuse might not be revealed until much later to another therapist,” Comerford said.
Under present law, the Maine Board of Examiners of Psychologists can strip psychologists who commit such an offenses of their license to practice in Maine.
“While this action in many cases is adequate, the board is not a court of law and does not address criminal activity,” said Comerford.
But the chair of the Criminal Law Advisory Commission, which advises the Legislature on criminal law matters, opposed the bill.
The commission’s John Pelletier said statutes of limitation serve a function to protect against errors in the criminal justice system.
“As time passes and the quality of the evidence diminishes, you have a greater chance of errors,” Pelletier said. “If you are the accused long after the offense, it’s hard to mount a defense.”
Haskell asked the committee to cut out a separate portion of the bill that would have removed Maine’s six-year statute in civil cases and leave no time limit. That portion may be taken up next year by another committee.