Last month, many child sex abuse victims and children's advocates were distraught when the Missouri Supreme Court overturned two recent laws designed to restrict sex offenders and safeguard kids. But to me it felt like, in the words of Yogi Berra, “deja vu all over again.”
In January, the state’s highest court ruled that where convicted child predators live and what they do on Halloween cannot be limited "retroactively." It’s at least the fifth time in recent years that the court has rejected laws intended to help expose the guilty and protect the vulnerable.
Back in 1992, the court used the same rationale when it said that I had no legal recourse against the man who assaulted me as a child and the institution that protected him.
As a devout young altar boy and Catholic school student, I was repeatedly molested by my pastor. Time and time again, he’d take me on out-of-town trips – skiing in Colorado, swimming in Florida, canoeing in Arkansas, hiking in Kentucky, and beach-combing in North Carolina.
Then, while I was asleep, hundreds of miles from home, I’d wake up and find his hairy, sweaty, 6-foot-4-inch body on top of mine, pushing and rubbing and eventually ejaculating. Or, I’d rouse to find his hands roughly groping my private parts. I lay paralyzed and confused, unable to speak.
My naive, overwhelmed mind and psyche couldn’t deal with the horror. Unconsciously, I coped with the trauma by repressing the memory of each incident shortly after it happened. I awoke the next morning with no recollection whatsoever of what he had done to me just hours before.
Eventually, those awful memories began flooding back. Worried that my former pastor might still be hurting kids, I contacted church officials, who responded tersely and callously, offering me no consolation or guidance. Learning that it was too late for criminal charges, I filed a lawsuit under a then-new Missouri law that allowed for “delayed discovery of injury.”
But just like last month, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the rights of dangerous predators trumped the rights of wounded victims. The justices said that the law I sued under, which gave victims more time to sue their perpetrators, applied only in child sex crimes which happened after that law took effect.
With each of these rulings about these laws, the justices are, no doubt, just doing what they consider their legal duty: honoring the Missouri constitution, which prohibits "ex post facto" laws. Still, the basic message that child sex abuse victims, young and old, take away from these decisions, is: “Stay silent. Give up. You’re trapped. And predatory adults matter more than innocent children.”
For those of us who deeply care about stopping devastating child sex crimes, there are only two options now. We can fruitlessly assail the court, which won’t change a thing or protect a child. Or we can lean hard on our lawmakers to amend Missouri’s archaic, predator-friendly constitution so that victims, lawmakers and judges can better expose child molesters and restrict their proximity to vulnerable kids.
David Clohessy of St. Louis is the national director of a support group called SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAPnetwork.org). He can be reached at SNAPclohessy@aol.com or 314-566-9790.