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Iowa has turned itself into the Cayman Islands of child sex predators

Statement by Stephen Mills, May 13, 2022 News Conference

My name is Stephen Mills, and I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I want to take a moment to explain that term—“survivor”—just to be sure we’re all on the same page.

We call ourselves survivors because many of us don’t make it. When you’re sexually assaulted as a child, it is quite common—as an adult—to succumb to drug overdose, mental illness, or suicide attempts. I, personally, survived all of those. So I stand here today, representing not just myself, but my brothers and sisters who didn’t make it, and who never had a chance to get justice.

Let me give you a quick synopsis of my memoir, CHOSEN, because it’s directly relevant to everything that’s wrong with Iowa’s current statute of limitations. I was sexually assaulted at age thirteen by the director of my summer camp in Connecticut. He was a respected social worker and community leader. He molested me for two years, until I was fifteen, and he completely destroyed the boyhood I might have had.

In my early twenties, I discovered that this man was molesting boys at another camp, this time in Illinois. When I spoke to high-level employees at the camp, it was clear they’d known for years what this predator was doing but no one would report him—they were too scared. I was terrified of him, and too ashamed, to go to law enforcement. But I confronted him and begged him to stop hurting children. He promised he would. Needless to say, he didn’t stop.

When that confrontation happened, I was 23 years old and getting my PhD in Economics at the University of Wisconsin. But when I realized I couldn’t stop this child predator, and that no one else would either, I went off the rails. I dropped out of graduate school, began shooting drugs, and spent the next four years trying to kill myself. There’s nothing unusual about this story; it’s all too common.

Now, fast forward a decade: in my early 30’s, after years of therapy, I made up my mind to stop this perpetrator. He had moved to Pennsylvania, where he was supervising youth programs for a community organization in Pittsburgh. This time, I was determined to protect the children. I wanted to file suit against him, but I couldn’t—my case was beyond the statute of limitations. So I collected statements from other past victims and witnesses and delivered them to the FBI and the Pittsburgh DA. But instead of investigating this serial predator, finding current victims, and prosecuting him, they let him quietly leave his job and he was free to go on abusing kids elsewhere. There was nothing that I or my fellow victims could do about it—because the courthouse door was barred to us.

It would take me another 33 years to win the right to file suit, and then, only because New York State passed the Child Victims Act in 2019, with a lookback window for older victims like me. Today, my perpetrator is dead. But at age 67, I’m holding his employers accountable in civil court, because that’s the only way to make sure those organizations will put tougher measures in place to stop abusers and protect children.

I want to point out a couple of things about my story.

First, my sexual abuse happened in a Jewish summer camp—to a kid from a well-educated Jewish family. Sexual abuse is not a Catholic problem or a Baptist problem or a Scouting problem—it’s a human problem. No community is spared. And we won’t stop this scourge until all of us—of all religions and both political parties—come together to address it.

Second, by the time my perpetrator died, he had run five different Jewish summer camps in five different states. He understood perfectly well how to stay one step ahead of the law and how to exploit predator-friendly statutes of limitations. I’m only surprised he didn’t wind up in Iowa.

By barring victims over age 18 from seeking justice in civil court, Iowa has turned itself into the Cayman Islands of child sex predators. You are effectively offering them safe harbor, allowing them to go on molesting children without any fear of having to answer to those victims in civil court. My perpetrator was many things, but he was not stupid.

At the same time, you are telling victims that, once we turn 19, we’re too old to get justice. Please show me a victim of childhood sexual assault who has healed enough by age 18 to go to court. I’ve never met such a person. Most of us are living with the terrible aftershocks of sexual abuse for decades before we disclose it to another person, much less feel ready to go to court. Then there are those who didn’t make it, who took their own lives as adults. If you’re old enough to kill yourself for something you suffered as a child, you should be allowed your day in court to hold your abuser accountable.

But in Iowa, if you’re over 18, you’re out of luck. You will carry that trauma and sense of powerlessness for the rest of your life. I can’t imagine that any Iowan feels good about this injustice. In fact, I have to assume that most of the good people in Iowa aren’t even aware of it. They don’t understand that your state’s current, worst-in-the nation statutes of limitations are, in effect, a magnet for child molesters. Once they know the truth, the citizens of Iowa, like those of so many other states, should demand that the legislature eliminate the statute of limitations—before more children are sacrificed and suffer for a lifetime. Thank you.

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