SAY "statute of limitations" to a non-lawyer (that means anyone with a conscience) and you'll probably get this response: It's just another sleazy technicality that protects criminals.

As someone who is often critical of defense attorneys and the way they cleverly but legally use the tricks of the trade to get their clients off, I can understand that. It is hard to explain to a lay person why someone who might very well be guilty should escape retribution because too much time has passed. Guilt is guilt, victims remain victims and God isn't blind, even though justice may be.

But in a world where accusations of abuse are now cropping up like mushrooms in the mist, it's important to take a look at why this so-called technicality that more than one victims advocate has called "stupid" is vital to the integrity of our legal system.

To me, these statutes are one of the things about our legal system that keep us civilized. Imagine what would happen if a person decided, decades after the fact, to accuse a person of heinous crimes that never actually occurred. The motive could be money, it could be revenge, it could simply be the result of a misguided trip to the therapist who coaxes false memories out of a troubled mind. If our legal system allowed that person to file a lawsuit long after witnesses had died and evidence disappeared, we would be making a mockery of the phrase "due process."

It's already happened. Years ago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was falsely accused of molesting a former altar boy, who then recanted his story only after the prelate was on his deathbed. Bernardin forgave his accuser. The legal system shouldn't be so compassionate.

More recently, Father Michael Flood was sued in a civil court by a former parishioner who accused him of abuse decades ago, and who was able to get the case to court only because the Legislature had opened a two-year window in the statute of limitations. This week, that lawsuit was dropped when the credibility of the accuser (whose name is still not being released by the media) was torn apart on cross examination.

You might say that this doesn't prove the crimes never occurred. But it does show what happens when you allow people to start throwing around accusations 20, 30 and 40 years after the alleged crimes occurred.

We at the Daily News have seen it close to home, with the current headlines about Bill Conlin. Despite what some would say - the same people who were ready to hang Joe Paterno from the highest tree - defendants are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And it's not the business of either the prosecutors or the Constitution to make it easier for the accusers to satisfy their evidentiary burden.

Lately, it seems that all you have to do to get a hearing is claim that someone took advantage of you when you were a child. Headlines are written, the accused's name is splashed all over the page and the accuser hides comfortably behind the veil of anonymity. This, to me, is a perversion of justice in the same way that allowing Mumia Abu-Jamal to continue breathing is a violation of the natural order.

It's unpopular these days to ask for caution, patience, and a little bit of the same compassion extended to those who point the finger. If you do so, as I learned from my pieces on Paterno, you are labeled an apologist for rape. Or worse.

Again, that's understandable. The thought of a child being victimized makes the stomach turn and the conscience rebel, as well it should. But we should not let those emotions overcome the reason that is built into our criminal-justice system, nor should we allow people to seek civil damages decades after their alleged wounds were opened.

I just turned 50 this year. There are more grays in my hair, more wrinkles on my face. And my memory is not as sharp. We are all victims of time; the law, attempting to be fair, recognizes that fact.

So, the suggestion that we should start abolishing statutes of limitations, or extending them until any intended protections become irrelevant, is not only wrong. It is a desecration of the only principle that truly matters: we are born innocent, and remain that way.

Until someone goes through all the legitimate obstacles to prove that we're not.

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Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. Email cflowers1961@yahoo.com