Friday, November 28, 2008
Child abuse survivors advocate for legal reform
By Ron Cassie
Frederick News Post - November 28, 2008
Ava Miegdzinski endured physical and psychological trauma after being sexually abused as a 4-year-old by a Hebrew school teacher in Providence, R.I.
At 58, Miegdzinski stepped forward publicly for the first time to discuss the repercussions of her abuse, which she said included sterility. She said she intends to lend her voice in support of legislation that would extend Maryland's statute of limitations on lawsuits involving cases of child sexual abuse.
She described her experience during a recent public meeting at the C. Burr Artz Public Library in downtown Frederick.
Miegdzinski said that her sister Sandra is also a victim, and that Sandra was 5 when she was sexually abused by a neighbor.
"The lawyers talked my parents out of filing a lawsuit because they said the other side's attorneys would tear my sister apart," Miegdzinski said. "That makes us both so mad today."
Victims of such abuse have criminal but not civil recourse after their 25th birthday. Studies show that only 10 percent of victims ever report childhood sexual abuse, and most who do wait until they are well into adulthood.
Prosecutors aren't likely to take on cases involving sexual abuse that allegedly took place decades ago, victim advocates said, thus the need for civil remedy.
The local meeting was sponsored by Child Victims Voice of Maryland, a coalition working to abolish the state statute of limitations on lawsuits in cases involving child sexual abuse, and The Awareness Center, a Jewish coalition against sexual abuse and assault.
Similar events aimed at rallying support for legislation already filed by Baltimore state Sen. Delores Kelley, the Civil Actions -- Child Sex Abuse -- Statute of Limitations, were scheduled in Pikesville and in Bowie. Susan O'Brien, an Annapolis consultant and child sexual abuse victim herself, said that more events around the state will be planned before and during the General Assembly session.
"This is a bill that should have bipartisan support," O'Brien said. "This is a child protection measure. Do I want the right to sue the guy who abused me 25 years ago? Yes, but the guy who abused me in 1978 was 23 years old at the time, and he's still out there.
"My son Charlie is 6, I was 8," O'Brien said. "When you start having your own children, you start looking at what you can do to protect them."
The proposed legislation has two components: extending the statute of limitations and providing a two-year window for victims of any age to come forward.
"Education is the key," said Vicki Polin of The Awareness Center. "The simple fact is that people do not come forward until they are 40, 50 and 60 years old, and the statute of limitation needs to be extended."
The typical child sexual predator, Polin said, will molest more than 100 children over the course of a lifetime.
Polin and O'Brien, who led the small gathering, encouraged those in attendance to contact their local PTAs, neighborhood watch organizations and Scout leaders, and talk with those groups about the issue and proposed legislation.
The bill does not provide victims with any special rights, O'Brien said.
"It does not attempt to legally redefine rape, or sexual abuse, or child abuse, or any institutions. Victims still must present the merits of their claim. They still have to go court and present evidence as they would with any other court proceeding."
Although only 2 percent of child abuse victims claim to have been abused by clergy (46 percent claim to have been abused by a family member, the rest by teachers, neighbors and other adults), the Maryland Catholic Conference has played an outsized role in lobbying against expanding the statute of limitations in the past, Polin and O'Brien said.
That concern, plus the Catholic Church's ongoing sexual abuse crisis, brought Charlie Diffenbaugh, a member of St. Ignatius in Urbana, to the meeting in Frederick.
"It's my opinion that the church should stop lobbying to defeat this type of legislation and finally face up to the issue," Diffenbaugh said. "They're spending thousands of dollars of people's money to defeat this, and I think that's a real problem."