Child sex abuse: How long do the statutes of limitations run in the EU? | News | DW | 04.05.2018
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Child sex abuse: How long do the statutes of limitations run in the EU?

Victims of sexual abuse during childhood often face a race against time to come forward and report their offenders. DW looks at how statutes of limitations for such crimes vary across the European Union.

Chile was left in a state of shock this week following the brutal rape and death of a 20-month-old toddler. With its citizens in uproar, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera on Thursday said he would back legislation to lift the statute of limitations (SOL) on sex crimes against minors.

Under current law, there is a five- to 10-year SOL on cases concerning sexual abuse against minors. This effectively means that a victim can no longer pursue charges against the abuser more than 10 years after the incident took place.

Read more: Pope Francis offers Chile sex abuse victims 'gesture of regret and humility'

Pinera's decision went further than expected, with initial reports suggesting that he would seek to impose a 30-year time limit.

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"Our children who have been sexually abused have the right to a defense in order to obtain justice and prevent the passing of time... becoming a real accessory in favor of impunity," the Chilean president said.

By scrapping the SOL on child sex abuse cases, Chile would follow in the footsteps of some, although not all European Union countries. DW looks at how the statutes of limitations vary across different EU member states.

Differences in the heart Europe

In Germany the most severe instances of child sex crimes have an SOL of up to 20 years. However, recent revisions to Germany's criminal code mean that the limitation period does not begin before the victim turns 30.

In effect, this means that a victim has until the age of 50 to report any instances of abuse experienced during childhood.

Read more: German man sentenced to five and a half years for livestreaming sex abuse

France also imposes a 20-year statute of limitations for rape against a minor, although the period begins from the time of the incident. Such a policy is controversial and has been decried by several rights groups, since it means the limitation period begins before the victim of is old enough to even launch legal proceedings.

However, France also currently finds itself the midst of a judicial firestorm over the legal definition of rape. In March, two men were initially acquitted of rape charges after having sex with 11-year-old girls because the acts were found to be consensual. While one of the offenders still received a five-year prison term, the sentence was markedly shorter than it would have been in other EU states.

The case attracted global attention to France's lack of a legal age for consenting to sex. The country's equality minister, Marlene Schiappa, has since said the government now intends to set a legal age of consent at 15, while the case is subject to review.

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No limitations

The UK keeps it simpler by not imposing an SOL on persecuting any crimes before a criminal court. This includes sex crimes against anyone, whether it is an adult or minor. As a result, several high profile personalities have in recent years been convicted for acts of child abuse committed during the 1970s and 1980s.

The Netherlands in 2013 similarly scrapped all limitation periods for serious sexual offenses that carry a minimum sentence of eight years, including those against children.

Little cohesion in Eastern Europe

Further east in Europe, there appears to be just as much disparity between EU countries. Hungary, for example, does not impose any SOL on child abuse cases and Poland has looked to follow suit by toughening laws prosecuting sex offenders.

Read more: Poland's Catholic Church vows 'zero tolerance' on pedophilia

Upon coming into power in 2015, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party sought to overhaul its SOL for child sex offenses, which at the time only imposed a five-year limit to press charges after the victim's 18th birthday. A proposed new bill would scrap the SOL for child sex cases and also increase the maximum prison sentence to 30 years. "I believe that the Polish state should be ruthless and brutal towards perpetrators of violent crimes, extreme cruelty, rape, pedophilia and sexually motivated murders," PiS Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro was quoted as saying.

Romania, in 2014, however, appeared to move in the opposite by actually shortening the SOL down to seven years for young victims. Lawmakers in Bucharest were reported as saying that the country was struggling to support the social security and penitentiary system so it was easier to reduce the punishment.

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