SHERIDAN — In 2002, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight journalism team published a series uncovering a long history of sexual abuse by Catholic Church priests toward children. Sixteen years later, new reports of old abuse have come forward in Pennsylvania and, closer to home, Cheyenne.
Differing statutes of limitation are in place in 45 states. While Wyoming is one of five states with no statutes of limitation for criminal sexual abuse charges, entities working with victims still find it difficult to convict perpetrators in abuse cases from years ago.
A grand jury in Pennsylvania discovered at least 300 sexual abuse victims of acts by priests leading the state’s churches, but those cases cannot be tried as the state’s statutes of limitation restricts victims from filing charges against perpetrators after a certain number of years.
Of the 45 states with statutes of limitation, several state legislatures have considered changing statues to remove those criminal limitations. Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York are considering eliminating statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse, and many others are looking to put actions in place to lengthen time frames for reporting and convicting or to aid victims in compensation.
Sheridan County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Dianna Bennett confirmed the lack of limitations on reporting and convicting child sexual abusers in Wyoming and is grateful for it in her line of work.
“I hope that they don’t ever change because often you don’t hear about (sexual abuse) until years later,” Bennett said.
Convicting perpetrators of a crime committed years ago is difficult for law enforcement agencies to convict for multiple reasons. Factors that contribute to underreporting include extended time between the actual crime and reporting it results in a lack of physical evidence; a victim reporting sexual abuse may be the only one for a perpetrator, pitting one person’s word against another; and fears associated with reporting the crime.
Sheridan Police Department Lt. Travis Koltiska has experienced successful prosecutions for sexual abuse crimes that took place three decades before. In those situations, multiple victims have come forward, and reports are corroborated with coinciding facts within each confession.
Still, time is almost always of the essence.
“The sooner we get the report, the easier it is for us to conduct a very thorough investigation,” Koltiska said. “Usually physical evidence will deteriorate after a certain period of time, so we really hope and stress that these things are reported immediately and any physical evidence that may be present can be recovered.”
If victims of sexual abuse or assault do not want to immediately report the crime to law enforcement, they may still have a medical examination and evidence collected through a sexual assault kit at Sheridan Memorial Hospital. SMH is required to report that a kit was used to SPD, but the kits may remain anonymous. Regardless, SPD records the kit and keeps it in evidence indefinitely. If victims want to report the crime to SPD later on, they may, and officers will use the collected evidence to help with the investigation.
Out of 94 sexual assault cases reported to SPD in the last three years, 19 were reported unfounded. Most of the cases listed unfounded are because reporting parties recants their story or provides information that otherwise negates the initial report of sexual abuse or assault. If evidence is presented but officers do not have enough of a case to send to the county attorney’s office, the case is indefinitely suspended.
“We don’t want people to believe that just because we can’t prove it, it doesn’t mean they’re falsely reporting it, which would prohibit potential victims from reporting,” Koltiska said. “There have been occasions where we have (been able to convict).”
Even if cases are admitted as false reports, SPD still approaches each case with extreme care and sensitivity.
That’s where Advocacy and Resource Center employees come in. The roles of advocates are completely separate from law enforcement action or criminal justice charges.
“We get to just sit with a survivor and believe them,” ARC victim witness coordinator Rhonda Weber said. “That’s all we can do for them, and at that point if they decide to report a crime, then it’s our role as an advocate to support them in that decision and advocate for them through the criminal justice process, which means making sure they have all of the information, all of the education, all of their rights being exercised.”
ARC works with more survivors of sexual assault in the middle of the crisis and less of those wishing to speak with someone about child abuse from long ago, although they do help those people, too.
“We do serve and see adults who (have been) victims of child sexual abuse, and as adults they’re either at a place where they are comfortable talking about what happened to them, they want to talk about what happened or they are just learning now how to cope with what happened,” Weber said.
Weber said advocates are fortunate in Sheridan because prosecutors and law enforcement understand the value of the advocate, who allows victims to make the decision whether to report. If victims do choose to report, advocates walk them through the entire process, and other agencies rely on them to serve in that role.
“Regardless of the outcome, if they’re working with an advocate, they…understand the outcome better,” Weber said. “The key to those types of situations, we believe in their survivorhood, is working with an advocate making sure they understand all their rights and information through that process.”
Victims of child sexual abuse, past or present, have the decision to report the crime committed against them. Whether victims report or not, local agencies are available to help, no matter how much time has passed.