North Carolina bill would extend statute of limitations

North Carolina state capitol Credit Joseph Sohm  Shutterstock North Carolina state capitol. | Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.

A proposed bill in North Carolina would allow more time for victims of child abuse to pursue both criminal and civil action against their abuser.

The bill, called the SAFE Child Act, has gained bipartisan support in the state legislature.

Attorney General Josh Stein (D) unveiled the legislation on March 7, saying "Our first job as parents and as a state is to keep our kids safe."

Stein said the bill "will increase enforcement tools to make sure abuse is reported and prosecuted – which will allow more victims to see justice and put more abusers behind bars."

The legislation would extend the statute of limitations for misdemeanor child abuse from its current two years to 10 years. It would allow victims of child abuse to pursue a civil lawsuit against the abuser until age 50, rather than the current limit of age 21.

In addition, the bill would ban high-risk sex offenders from contacting minors on social media.

It would enable prosecutors to convene investigative grand juries to examine child abuse claims, utilizing tools such as questioning witnesses under oath, compelling sworn testimony from witnesses, and subpoenaing records. Currently, investigative grand juries can only be convened in drug trafficking and human trafficking cases.

It would also require "any person or organization to report all reasonably suspected child abuse," expanding current mandatory reporting rules, which only cover cases in which an abuser "is in a parental role and in a residential setting," according to a fact sheet released by the state attorney general.

The attorney general also announced that he has collaborated with experts to create best practices for organizations that work with children. These include policies to prevent, identify and report abuse, and education about resources to help victims.

The Diocese of Raleigh said in a statement that it "looks forward to reviewing the proposed act recently announced by Attorney General Stein and supports efforts to further protect North Carolina's children from sexual abuse."

"Bishop [Luis] Zarama and the diocese support additional measures that would further clarify or expedite reports of suspected abuse and aid survivors in healing," the statement said.

The diocese pointed to child protection efforts that are currently implemented for Church personnel, including programs to screen all adult leaders who work with children, and to train them to recognize and report signs of child abuse or neglect.

More than 24,000 diocesan staff members and volunteers have received the training since 2003.

The diocese also noted that at its request, it entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys in 2003, creating "a self-imposed obligation to immediately report to the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys (NCCDA) all claims of sexual abuse or assault on a minor."

The fact sheets released by the attorney general's office did not discuss whether priests hearing confession would be deemed mandatory reporters under the proposed law. The question has been raised in other states and countries, with Catholic dioceses warning that priests would be unable to adhere to such a requirement, as the seal of confession is inviolable. In 2016, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that priests cannot be required to break the seal of confession to report alleged abuse of minors.

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