Op-Ed

Epstein’s victims deserve to find justice in civil court, too | Opinion

Years later, Epstein’s victims discuss the lasting impact of sexual abuse

Victims of Jeffrey Epstein share the emotional toll that sexual abuse has taken on them — even years after the abuse occurred. Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown interviewed the young women, most speaking for the first time about Epstein.
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Victims of Jeffrey Epstein share the emotional toll that sexual abuse has taken on them — even years after the abuse occurred. Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown interviewed the young women, most speaking for the first time about Epstein.

Have you noticed that the latest on the Jeffrey Epstein child sex-trafficking scandal has focused on the powerful men involved, from Epstein to President Trump, Alex Acosta, Bill Clinton, Ken Starr, Alan Dershowitz and New York U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman? To be sure, these men — except for Berman — operated together to empower Epstein to abuse far more girls than he might have otherwise, and that is newsworthy.

But before we move much farther down the line, let’s not forget the victims and the trauma they have suffered as a result of the cover-up.

Because of the trauma, humiliation and shame inflicted on child sex-abuse and trafficking victims, many never come forward. According to the best science, the average age for child sex abuse survivors to come forward is 52. They are often slowed down by depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicide ideation, substance abuse and addiction and even physical ailments like a greater incidence of heart disease and cancer.

It takes courage to get around these demons and step into the public spotlight. To their credit, Epstein’s victims have.

It can be hard to watch someone speak from the heart about the abuse they suffered, but we need to hear it, in part to mobilize prosecutors and lawmakers to empower them. For far too long, most victims were unfairly shut out of the justice system by unfair statutes of limitations that were far shorter than age 52 in most states. Regardless of the quality of the evidence, cases were blocked by an arbitrary deadline.

Here is the typical scenario until relatively recently: Well into adulthood, a victim would be ready for justice. Wanting to put their perpetrator in jail and prevent this from ever happening again, they would speak to the police. The police would say their hands are tied because it’s “out of statute.” Then they might go to a civil attorney, who would say they can’t sue, either. The message the victim hears is that everyone — society, the prosecutor and attorney — has decided their claims don’t count.

That’s cruel, and if the #MeToo movement is to have lasting positive effect, it can’t be enough to ask the victims to just tell their stories. They need justice. So does the public.

Empowering victims needs to follow two paths, which are both playing out in the Epstein scandal.

First, criminal prosecutors must take child sex-abuse and trafficking claims seriously, and treat the victim with respect. That validates them — on behalf of the government and society. That is where Alex Acosta and his team failed. Ignoring the victims and dealing behind their backs with the perpetrator is the direct opposite of what is needed.

New York’s U.S. Attorney Berman is doing what he should: pursuing the facts and investing resources and energy into prosecuting those who endangered these girls through whatever pathways the law provides. The criminal-justice system, however, is not sufficient by itself to empower the victims. It can put perpetrators into jail and can provide restitution. But it only succeeds in cases where there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very high standard.

Second, victims deserve an opportunity for civil justice. That means in many cases that their already-expired claims need to be revived. For the victims trafficked and abused in New York, they will have this right to sue starting Aug. 14, 2019, for one year. This is a powerful weapon, because it meets many of the needs of the victims — for the cost of the abuse they have shouldered to be shifted to the ones who caused it and it drives the facts into the public square. Perpetrators and their enabling networks do not voluntarily hand over the evidence they hold about seriatim abuse of children. It takes the civil courts to direct them to do so.

By and large, civil lawsuits are why we know what we do about the Catholic Church, Penn State and Nassar scandals, among many others.

Julie K Brown’s remarkable series unlocking the stories of these brave women deserves kudos, and these women should be heard. They also should be empowered against those who destroyed their lives. That is what the legal system and access to justice can deliver.

Marci Hamilton is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of CHILD USA

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