The justice minister will be presenting a bill in parliament to amend Malta’s criminal code and give prosecutors an additional five years to identify and charge child molesters in court.

The amendments will see the statute of limitations for sexual crimes committed against minors start ticking from the moment the victim turns 23.

Currently, the statute of limitations begins to run when a victim turns 18, and under Maltese law, sex abuse against minors is subject to a 15-year prescription period.

The bill is also intended to expand the law on sexual offences related to minors as well as other offences.

This is all well and good. But is it enough? I say this because I am afraid that in Malta, as is the case in a good number of countries abroad, there still exist too many barriers to compensation for child victims of sexual exploitation and related sexual offences.

Children who are victims of sexual exploitation experience harm and trauma which are often irreparable and bear deep, long-lasting sequels.

Recovery and rehabilitation, whenever possible, can be a long and complicated process for these children. Prospects of a better life are uncertain at best and often depend on resources too frequently lacking.

Children who navigate the justice system as victims or witnesses face significant challenges when it comes to claiming their rights, ranging from systems designed for adults to the lack of assistance available, to a lack of understanding on the part of adults about their rights and needs as victims.

It is unacceptable and unforgivable that children who have suffered such horrific crimes would be left out and denied any form of reparation.

Let us take compensation as a small, concrete example. The term ‘compensation’ is somewhat of a misnomer when it comes to child victims of sexual exploitation: no amount of money could possibly serve as a recompense for children who have had their lives, hopes and dreams shattered as a result of criminal acts. Children who have survived sexual exploitation have complex injuries and needs, which can prove challenging or impossible to quantify.

There still exist too many barriers to compensation for child victims of sexual offences

Nonetheless, a monetary award is one of the multiple components which can support a recovery process. It can play an important role to the extent it may provide much-needed financial resources in situations where victims have their very basic needs unmet – such as food, accommodation and shelter – in addition to helping cover expenses for healthcare, counselling and other desperately needed services.

Yet, in spite of the proposed amendments, the regulations on the criminal injuries compensation scheme (S.L. 9.12) make it ineligible for a child victim or their representative to lodge an application for compensation if made later than a year from when the offence was committed.

If this legal position remains as it is, child victims of sexual exploitation and other offences may easily continue to be denied compensation for their suffering, or worse still, be left completely unaware of their right to seek remedies.

Receiving compensation – the desperately needed financial assistance to rebuild their lives – can mean the difference between a child successfully breaking out of the cycle of exploitation or returning to it.

There could be many reasons why very few children seek and obtain compensation or monetary relief – money from a state-managed victim compensation fund or from a perpetrator through a court of law – for injuries and trauma incurred from being sexually exploited.

These obstacles include the lack of information made available to child victims about their rights, lack of support throughout the compensation-seeking process, conditions imposed by government-managed victim compensation funds, challenges facing victims in the court environment   and difficulties in enforcing court-ordered compensation against an offender.

We all remember how and why the St Joseph Home sex abuse victims lost their appeal for damages from the Church less than two years ago.

The long-term effects of childhood molestation abuse are varied, complex and often devastating. The proposed bill will fulfil a long-desired wish to remedy a legal shortcoming, but other related issues will eventually have to be addressed too by our legislator.

For some survivors of childhood abuse, there is minimal compromise to their adult functioning. Others experience psychological, physical and behavioural symptoms.

An understanding of the magnitude and effects of childhood molestation and abuse, along with knowledge about screening and intervention methods, can help the professionals involved offer appropriate care and support to patients with such histories.

Mark Said, lawyer

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