Justice for child sex abuse should not depend on postcodes

The statute of limitations on prosecuting child sexual abuse makes children’s rights a postcode lottery.

Author at council of Europe
Ten years ago, McVarish left London on foot and walked to every EU capital city, asking each nation’s government to abolish their statute of limitations on prosecuting childhood sexual abuse [Matthew McVarish]

Is there anything in your life so important that you would leave your family and career behind for two years, and walk 50km (31 miles) every day across Europe?

On May 31, 2013 – 10 years ago to this day – that is exactly what I did. I left London on foot and walked to every European Union capital city, asking each nation’s government to abolish their statute of limitations on prosecuting childhood sexual abuse.

Why? Because the complete abolition of any time limit on prosecuting child sexual abuse is an essential step if humanity is ever to bring an end to sexual violence against children.

My uncle sexually abused me and three of my brothers throughout our childhood. He was a trusted family member. A teacher. My godfather.

The abuse started as far back as I can remember. Yet for 12 years, I remained silent. I didn’t know how to speak about any of it. I didn’t know that my brothers were suffering silently, too.

At the age of 25, after a decade of therapy, I finally approached the police in Scotland. Not for revenge or compensation, but as a matter of child protection. My uncle was still a teacher who was sexually abusing countless boys in class. I had to break my silence for them.

Thankfully, my nation allowed me to press charges against my uncle despite the years that had elapsed since my abuse. The United Kingdom does not impose any time limitation on prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence against children. This means that victims and survivors can seek justice when they are ready, often in later life when they have begun to process their childhood trauma.

But the same cannot be said of all European nations.

If my uncle had abused me in various other countries he would simply not have been arrested. My evidence would have been ignored. A repeat child sex offender with four known victims would be left to continue working in schools, despite authorities being fully aware that he was a definite threat to other children.

This is an urgent matter of child protection.

Today, I addressed the Council of Europe’s Lanzarote Committee (the Committee of the Parties to the Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse). On behalf of the Brave Movement, the Global Statute of Limitations Task Force and the collective voice of survivors from all over the world, I implored the committee to recommend the complete abolition of the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes in Europe.

I was not asking for anything drastic or radical, but simply reminding the committee of its legal duty to ensure the effective implementation of the Lanzarote Convention that was built to safeguard children against sexual violence.

The evidence speaks for itself. Statutes of limitations do not safeguard children against sexual violence. And if protecting children from rape is not a priority, there’s also an economic case to be made.

First, the majority of victims do not disclose in childhood. That is a fact. Often, I am asked, “If the sexual abuse you suffered as a child was so bad, why did it take 12 years to report it?” My response – it took me 12 years to report it because it was so bad.

Multiple scientific studies, systemic reviews and meta-analyses carried out over the last two decades have established that, in cases of childhood sexual abuse, it is natural for the victim to either report their abuse decades later, or never report it at all. Data on abuse in the Boy Scouts of America found that more than 50 percent of survivors first disclosed their abuse after the age of 50. A similar survey of victims in German institutions revealed the average age of disclosure was over 52.

Second, sexual predators do not become any less dangerous with age. Child sexual abuse is unlike any other crime in this sense. Whilst criminals are unlikely to keep robbing banks in their 70s, the world has millions of sexual abuse survivors of elderly priests, grandfathers and teachers.

Sexual predators become emboldened with time, thriving in a culture of silence. My uncle was sentenced for crimes he committed 35 years earlier, but the truth is, he was still abusing children more than a decade after he last abused me.

And – if these arguments aren’t convincing enough – there’s the money to be saved. We have understood since 1998, when Dr Vincent Felitti published his pivotal Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, that sexual abuse in childhood negatively alters the entire trajectory of a child’s development into adulthood.

How much do countries spend every year dealing with homelessness, drug addiction or obesity? Germany – a country that has not yet abolished its statute of limitations – estimates annual follow-up costs of child abuse and neglect amounting to 11.1 billion euros at the very least.

It would cost comparatively nothing to remove the limitation.

When I undertook my walk across Europe 10 years ago, I was only one survivor pleading with governments to take action. Today, I represent an entire global gathering of voices. We are the children who were sexually abused, and we will not let another decade pass before the people with the power to change what must change, take the action only they can.

Europe is still a patchwork blanket of inequality. Some survivors can access justice. Many cannot. Some children are protected. Many are not.

Children’s rights should not depend on their zip code.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.