From the jailing of Bill Cosby and the revelations of mass sexual abuse on Olympic gymnasts to allegations levelled against Brett Kavanugh and Cristiano Ronaldo, recent cases have shown the world that sex crimes can take several years to surface as victims summon up the courage to face down their abusers and try to seek justice.
Now what if the victim in question is a child? It undoubtedly requires a lot of courage for grown-up victims of paedophilia to delve back into the darkest abysses of their childhood, and building up this courage undoubtedly takes time.
Unfortunately, if the victim in question happens to be living in Malta, then such a quest for justice is essentially a race against the clock.
All crimes in Maltese law are subject to time-barring, as is the case in several other countries, meaning no action can be taken against a person if the alleged crime took place outside a prescription period.
The prescription period varies according to the gravity of the crime, ranging from three months for contraventions and verbal insults to 20 years for crimes liable to over 20 years’ imprisonment.
Child sexual abuse in Malta is only punishable by a maximum of eight years’ imprisonment, meaning it falls within the third prescription bracket, a time bar for 10 years, with the clock starting to tick from the last incident of abuse. It can go up a notch to 15 years if the crime was a continuous offence or if it had aggravating factors, such as if the child was younger than 12 or if the abuse was carried out by a family member.
There are certainly valid reasons as to why prescription periods are a feature of Maltese law; evidence is often lost and memories often clouded after a certain amount of time has passed and prosecuting people for alleged crimes committed so long ago could be both a waste of resources and an injustice to both the defendant and the victim.
Yet, when it comes to child abuse, the bar is set shockingly low.
If a 10-year-old child is molested, then he only has until he is at most 25 to come forward and if he were 7, then he would only have until he is at most 22.
To expect a survivor of child abuse to come forward at such a relatively tender age is asking a lot, particularly in a Maltese context where abuse often takes place within tight-knit communities or amongst relatives.
Make no mistake about it, the prescription on child abuse is allowing child molesters to get away with heinous crimes without even spending a day behind bars.
Take a very recent case. In December 2014, the foster father of a 21-year-old woman reported a family friend to the police after his daughter opened up about how he used to force her to engage in oral sex with him.
The young woman said that the man, who was a next-door neighbour of her foster grandmother, had started molesting her when she was 12 and continued until she was 16. She kept silent for just over five years out of fear her story won’t be believed, but eventually opened her heart to her boyfriend, who then informed her foster father, who reported the case to the police.
The man was found guilty and convicted to two years’ imprisonment, but he instantly appealed the case on the grounds that the accusations were made just after the five-year prescriptive period. Although the Judge admitted she had no reason to believe he was innocent of the alleged crime, the law meant she had no other alternative but to let him go.
In a nutshell, this woman had to first suffer four years of sexual abuse by a family friend and its undoubtedly traumatic after-effects, and then had to suffer a second blow seeing her abuser get off scot-free because he wasn’t reported to the police on time. And this case is certainly not an isolated one. Should justice really work this way, where a case can collapse because it was reported to the police a few weeks too late?
The Maltese government has already recognised in principle that child sexual abuse should not be treated as any other crime. Last year, it amended the Civil Code to make it easier for child abuse victims to sue their abusers – with the prescription period for claiming damages now only kicking in when the child turns 18 and victims now allowed to also sue for moral damages, instead of only financial ones.
The government also proved its belief that not all crimes should be equal when applying statutes of limitation when it removed prescription on acts of political corruption a few years ago. If politicians should be held to such high standards, as indeed they should, then why should paedophilies be allowed to get away with it?
British entertainer Rolf Harris was jailed in 2014 for sex crimes against minors during the 70s and 80s
Malta is a step behind other countries in this regard. The UK has no statutes of limitation for paedophilia, which is why entertainer Rolf Harris, and former TV presenters Stuart Hall and Fred Talbot were recently jailed for offences that took place decades ago.
Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia have no time limits for child sex abuse either, and the concept varies in the US, with some states granting exceptions if DNA matches are found years later. Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera recently said he would back legislation to scrap statutes of limitations on sex crimes against minors, arguing it has rendered the passing of time an accessory in favour of impunity.
Other European countries, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, have also updated their laws in this regard in recent years.
This anomaly in Maltese law was recently criticised by the Lisa Maria Foundation, a NGO for the safeguarding of children run by the family of the late Lisa Marie Zahra – who allegedly jumped off Dingli Cliffs in 2014.
“If a perpetrator manages to remain under the radar for long enough, in the current system he can avoid justice because the case becomes time barred,” the Foundation said in the wake of the recent court case. “This is wrong! The Foundation strongly objects to this miscarriage of justice where the law has been applied to favour and support the interests of the offender in this heinous crime against the victim, a defenceless child. It is absolutely senseless that just because of the passage of time, a person of this sort is not only let off the hook but also allowed to continue to roam free with the possibility of him harming other children.”
“The Foundation is of the opinion that the principle of time-barring is removed from cases of sex offences against children. Our legal system should be updated to ensure that the protection of children is put before the interests of such perpetrators. Justice has to be done in all such cases that ultimately ruin the lives of children.”
And it has a point. It is no easy task for victims of sexual abuse to face their past, particularly when the abuser is a relative or in a position of power, and indeed some cope with the trauma by psychologically repressing their memories. If they truly have victims’ best interests at heart, then the state and the judicial system should make this journey as smooth as possible and not introduce unnecessary obstacles that only embolden predators and dishearten other victims from coming forward.
And starting a discussion on the reformation or outright elimination of time limits for child sexual abuse will certainly be a step in the right direction.