Eight years ago, Encino attorney Shari L. Karney was asked by a mother to take on a child custody case. Karney remembers considering the case as "rather gruesome, untidy and just too personal," since the client believed her 3-year-old daughter was sexually abused by her ex-husband.
Karney reluctantly took the case, which steered her onto a course that she now hopes will culminate in her eventual goal: a complete overhaul of national laws governing the recall--by adults--of sexual abuse that occurred during their childhoods.
For six years, Karney, along with San Francisco attorney Mary R. Williams and state Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) fought for passage of Senate Bill 108. The California law, which took effect Jan. 1, permits "delayed discovery" of childhood sexual abuse decades after that abuse has occurred.
A middle-aged person can now sue his or her elderly parent for sexual trauma caused at age 4, in the same manner as victims of other delayed-discovery injuries, such as asbestos poisoning. Six other states have passed similar laws.
"This law is not about revenge, it's about accountability," said Karney, 39, who advocates a national uniformity for childhood sexual abuse laws. "Victims should not have to go through the hoops to prove abuse. I think they should have an automatic right to sue until their 40th birthday," by which time, she believes, most victims have recognized and taken action regarding their abuse. "Only after that age should they be required to prove a delay."
Under SB 108, victims under age 26 have free rein to sue; those who are older must take legal action within three years of discovering the abuse.
"Studies show that most sexually abused persons remember their abuse sometime between the ages of 29 and 49," said Karney, adding that after she accepted the child custody case eight years ago, she remembered being sexually abused by both her brother and father--an assertion she made during hearings for SB 108. "They often need to be that old to handle the emotional trauma that goes along with remembering. That makes incest the perfect crime. By the time a victim remembers the abuse in most states, it's way too late for any legal action."
Lockyer said that child and sexual abuse is at "epidemic proportions in California. We hope for two things from this bill's enactment: that people who have been victims will have an opportunity for redress and that as these problems become more visible, lawsuits will have some deterrent effect and will help prevent future injuries and attacks on children.
"People need to learn that sexual abuse doesn't go away. It continues to twist the mind and emotions of those who have experienced it for years afterward."
In response to Karney's allegations, her 45-year-old brother, who declined to give his name, said his sister's report of sexual abuse is "a complete fabrication."
Karney's father, Louis, said he was "shocked and amazed" at his daughter's allegations when he first learned of them eight years ago. "All this reportedly happened 35 or more years ago," said Karney, 75, who lives in Carlsbad. "It's pretty damned hard to recall any detail from 35 years ago. I just don't remember anything."
To ensure he was not repressing any memories, Louis Karney said, he agreed to undergo psychological counseling and to be hypnotized.
After Louis Karney underwent a series of hypnotic regressions, clinical interviews and personality tests, licensed psychologist James J. Tschudy wrote in a Nov. 24, 1983, report that there was "abundant and convincing evidence" that his patient "simply could not have engaged in any sexual act with his young daughter or any other child."
Louis Karney said his daughter downplayed the 1983 report, calling Tschudy's practice "Mickey Mouse." She recently added: "It's very painful being victimized as a child, confronting your perpetrators and then having them take no responsibility whatsoever for their acts. The painful part of incest is that this is your family that is supposed to love and protect you. These are people I still love."
After pouring $50,000 of her own money into passage of SB 108, Shari Karney hasn't slowed her pace since the law took effect. Since January, she has appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Geraldo," "Today" and "Home Show" television programs to educate members of the public about their new legal rights under SB 108.
Karney is also helping to organize an April, 1993, national march on Washington, composed of incest victims, therapists, health care professionals and supporters. The march is "in the thinking stage now," she said, adding that a series of workshops before and during the march would teach lawyers and victims how to alter laws with restrictive statutes of limitations. An Arizona workshop has already been held.