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Several Southern Illinois officials on the front lines of combating child sexual assault and seeking justice for victims say they agree with legislation introduced in Springfield that would lift time constraints on prosecuting alleged offenders.

“I’m for that because I think we have a seen a lot of cases where people come forward years later, in some cases even 30 years after the alleged incident,” said Williamson County State’s Attorney Brandon Zanotti. In situations where victims come forward with credible stories but after the clock has run out, Zanotti said justice isn’t being served. “It’s sad,” he said.

Current Illinois law says that prosecutors have the ability to file charges in cases where a person who was the victim of sexual abuse as a child comes forward with allegations within 20 years of his or her 18th birthday. In other words, the abuse must be reported to authorities before the victim turns 38.

Most crimes, as well as civil claims, have a statute of limitations -- or the amount of time that can pass from the alleged incident to when charges can be filed or a valid lawsuit brought -- with the idea that, over time, the memories’ of witnesses fade, evidence can lose value with passing years, and to establish a level of fairness for the accused.

Still, for some violent crimes, there is no time limit on when a person can be charged. Lifting the statute of limitations on all child sex crimes would put them on par with other violent crimes, including murder or attempted murder. This idea is being discussed in statehouses across the country, including Illinois, as high-profile cases of alleged sex crimes are making continuous headlines, such as that of former Republican U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and comedian Bill Cosby.

Why some don't tell

Experts say the reasons that some victims of sex crimes don’t come forward, especially children, are complex. They can include self-blame, shame, fear of the abuser and fear of not being believed. Other reasons may be to protect family members or the family structure, admiration of the abuser if he or she is a prominent member of society, and an inability to process trauma of this magnitude as a child.

In Illinois, Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, filed legislation earlier this month to lift the statute of limitations –– on felony criminal sexual abuse and sex crimes against children.

Bennett, a former prosecutor specializing in prosecuting child sexual assault cases, filed the legislation a week after Hastert admitted in court that he sexually abused teenage boys years ago when he was a wrestling coach at Yorkville, before his political career began. Hastert, 74, was sentenced in late April to 15 months in federal prison for breaking banking rules related to his partial payout of $3.5 million he agreed to pay a victim to keep silent.

At sentencing, Federal Judge Thomas Durkin called Hastert a “serial child molester.” But Hastert wasn’t prosecuted for the underlying sex crimes because the time frame to bring charges had run out. The legislation would not be retroactive, and therefore would not apply to Hastert’s case.

“We shouldn’t reward people who are lucky enough to not get caught,” Bennett said, in a news release announcing the legislation. “Often victims of abuse take some time to find the courage to address these horrific crimes. They should have the option when they are ready to confront their abuser.”

Poshard: Lift time constraints 

Glenn Poshard, co-founder of the Poshard Foundation for Abused Children, of which his wife Jo Poshard serves as director, said he agrees with efforts to lift the statute of limitations.

“A lot of people, and I think this showed up in the Hastert case, a lot of people aren’t ready by the time they are 38 years old to acknowledge or deal with an incident in their childhood of sexual abuse,” said Poshard, a former U.S. representative who served in Congress with Hastert. “Sometimes people are in their 50s before they’re able to acknowledge or seek help for something like this.”

Poshard said he understands that the length of time between when the victim comes forward and the incident can make it more difficult to corroborate accounts of abuse, presenting a challenge for prosecutors. But Poshard said that given the difficulty many abuse victims have with coming forward for a variety of reasons, this provides a longer period “to actually bring it up and get it out there and deal with it openly.”

Poshard also noted that this is a nationwide problem that needs to be addressed.

“As weak as we think Illinois’ laws are (with the statute of limitations for child sexual assault cases) … they are still more liberal for the victim than most states in the country. It speaks to this being as much of a national problem as anything else,” Poshard said. “Sexual abuse is an egregious thing.”

Patchwork of complex laws 

A patchwork of complex statute of limitations laws exist for sex crimes across the nation that can differ based on a variety of factors, such as the age of the victim when the incident occurred and the severity of the crime in the eyes of the law. Prior to this year, Illinois made two changes to the law more favorable to victims in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, a new law removed time constraints for bringing civil lawsuits involving child sex crimes.

In 2014, the statute of limitations for criminal charges was eliminated for those where corroborating physical evidence is available, such as DNA evidence, or when a mandated reporter required to report alleged or suspected abuse of a child under the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act failed to do so. But experts say that only fits a narrow number of cases.

In addition to Sen. Bennett, Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, also is working to change the law. The Southern Illinois lawmaker issued a press release this past week saying he is sponsoring a package of measures to remove all of the various statute of limitations on sex crimes against children.

“The trauma that children suffer when they are victims of sexual abuse does not go away when the statute of limitations expires,” Costello said. “No sexual predator should be able to use a technicality in the law to avoid prosecution for the crimes they commit against innocent children.”

Challenge for prosecutors 

Zanotti, the state’s attorney, agreed that the lapse of time can make abuse allegations more difficult to prove in court. “Cases get cold. Evidence goes stale. People’s memories fade,” he said. The longer it takes with any case … the harder it is for us to get something out of it.”

But, he said, removing the statute of limitations at least keeps the option of prosecution on the table, and prosecutors would still have the discretion to determine whether the evidence and witnesses available warranted bringing charges. “It offers a glimmer of hope,” Zanotti said.

Zanotti, noting the prevalence of child sexual abuse cases in Southern Illinois, said he believes this is an important conversation for the region, and he’s glad to see the legislation being discussed in Springfield.

According to Department of Children and Family Services data, children are sexually abused in Illinois at a rate of 0.64 children per 1,000. The rate is significantly higher in many deep Southern Illinois counties. For instance, it is 0.70 in Franklin County; 1.0 in Hardin County; 1.40 in Jefferson County. 1.20 in Perry County; 1.5 in Pulaski County; 1.2 in Jackson County and 0.80 in Williamson County.

“It’s the hardest part of the job,” Zanotti said of those involving child sex abuse. “I see a lot of gruesome cases and these sex abuse cases against children are the most heart wrenching of all.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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