Staff Columnist

It's time to end the statute of limitations on child sexual assault

David Gray stands outside All Saints Catholic Church protesting the statute of limitations on childhood sexual assault on Sunday, August 11, 2019.
David Gray stands outside All Saints Catholic Church protesting the statute of limitations on childhood sexual assault on Sunday, August 11, 2019.

For three Sunday’s in August, David Gray stood outside All Saints Catholic Church, holding a sign that reads, “No Statute for Pedophile Priests.”

The first week he was there he said most cars took a left-hand turn out of the church parking lot to avoid him. The second and third week, people began to make eye contact and honk.

It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s the only one he has, because after years of silence he doesn’t know how else to make anyone listen.

Gray is one of many Iowa adults who were sexually abused as children. Gray attended Boys Acres in Bertram in the early 1970s, which has since been renamed Four Oaks. The son of a single mother, Gray says he was abused by staff members at the boys home. Gray recalls staff members waking boys up by grabbing their genitals. He was molested. He saw other boys raped. Four Oaks said it can’t comment on individual cases because of privacy laws.

But it wasn’t just the boys home. According to Gray, boys were bused over to All Saints for church services, where they were also molested. The Rev. John R. Flaherty who has been at All Saints since 2012, said he could not comment on Gray’s allegations, but expressed sympathy for Gray’s past abuse and noted that he’s praying for him.

But Gray wants more than prayer, he wants change. The Gazette spoke to two other men, now in their 50s, who also said they were abused at Boys Acres. Both declined to be identified. In February, the Diocese of Sioux City published a list of 28 priests who have credibly accused of abuse. The Department of Health estimates that in 2018 alone, more than 600 children in Iowa were sexually abused. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has a confidential hotline for victims to report sexual abuse, and it’s seeking records from Catholic churches to better understand the issue.

As with all sexual assault statistics, the actual number of victims of childhood assault might be higher, but the silence of shame and the powerlessness of victims’ means few speak out.

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As a child, Gray didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. Or who would believe him. After all, he was just a troubled kid. Another victim, who declined to be identified said he did tell his probation officer about what was happening, but no one believed him. Once Gray became an adult he wanted to say something, anything, but was worried about his mother. “It would have killed her,” he tells me. “She would have taken it on herself.” His mother was a single mom, four kids, on welfare and food stamps. She was just doing her best. And he doesn’t blame her.

But after his mother’s death, Gray, was tired of carrying it all with him. It was like trying stay afloat in water too deep. Gray has had a number of jobs through the years, working in construction, and as a plumber. He now works as a heavy equipment operator. It’s good work. But he’s struggled with alcoholism. He’s seen his friends die from suicide and others fall into homelessness and mental illness. He wants them to speak out too, but it’s hard. After his mother’s death, Gray was tired of drowning in the silence. So he made a sign. “No Statutes for Pedophile Priests” on one side. “No Statute for DHS Pedophiles” on the other. He mounted it on PVC pipe and stood on Mount Vernon Road. Standing in the sun in overalls with no shirt, he’s honest. “This is stupid,” he says, “people are protecting pedophiles by looking the other way.” No point in pretending, not anymore.

“It’s time for people in pews and sitting in boardrooms to say ‘enough’."

- Democratic minority leader Janet Petersen

He doesn’t want money. It’s too late for justice, but he does want the law changed.

Iowa’s statute of limitations on prosecuting child sexual abuse is 10 years after the victim turns 18. With an exception for DNA. If there is a DNA match, prosecution is limited to three years after the match. For comparison, under Iowa law, landlords have the same amount of time to collect unpaid rent.

The problem is, most childhood sexual assault survivors are reluctant to come forward. And when they do they are misunderstood, questioned, and criticized.

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), a victim’s advocacy nonprofit, recommends that all states eliminate their statutes of limitations for at least the most serious sex crimes and remove DNA exceptions. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office supports this move as “good public policy.”

For years, state Sen. Janet Petersen has been fighting the same fight as David Gray. She’s been trying to end or extend the statute of limitations for years in the Iowa Legislature, but she’s been knocked down each time by a political process more willing to protect institutions than seek justice for victims.

Petersen describes how each amendment and bill she’s put forth which has sought to change the statute has been locked in committee or denied a vote. It’s frustrating.

“If we want to end rape culture, it needs to begin with our kids and not protecting organizations that cover up crimes like this,” Petersen said.

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The biggest lobbyists against ending the statute of limitations are churches and schools, Petersen said. The very places where children should be the safest are the ones denying them justice. Recently, New York lifted the statute of limitations on child sex abuse for one year. The law went into effect in August and the courts have been flooded with hundreds of abuse survivors seeking justice.

The Gazette reached out to the governor’s office about ending the statute of limitations, but received no answer. Silence is its own kind of an answer.

“It’s time for people in pews and sitting in boardrooms to say ‘enough,’ ” Petersen said.

Gray, in the meantime, is doing his best to call and write and talk to anyone who will listen and believe him. He’d take a polygraph, but the cost is too much. But he won’t stop fighting for the boy he used to be and all the other lost boys in the system.

“It feels good to finally say something,” he said, stoically holding up his sign to the passing cars forcing them to see when they’d rather look away. Comments: 319-398-8513; lyz.lenz@thegazette.com

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