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End to limits in abuse cases urged
Clock would not run if children involved
By Raja Mishra, Globe Staff | March 15, 2006
Backed by high-profile political allies, advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse urged lawmakers yesterday to eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children, a proposal that quietly died in past years but appears to have more momentum this time around.
First at a fiery press conference on the steps of Beacon Hill, then at a lengthy and emotional hearing inside the State House, the advocates argued that sexual abuse victims often take years or decades to come to grips with their abuse and report it to authorities. The advocates say they want to give prosecutors the tools to bring accused abusers to justice no matter how old the crime. Currently, sexual crimes against children that took place 15 or more years ago cannot be prosecuted.
Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, a candidate for governor who was speaking for the Romney administration, called the state's current limits on prosecution outdated, saying, ''The Commonwealth is effectively allowing hundreds of sexual predators to remain free."
The bill has won the backing of Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a Democrat also running for governor, as well as 73members of the Legislature.
Despite the unprecedented support,Beacon Hill's grinding legislative machinery could work against the bill. It sits among nearly 800 other proposed measures under consideration by the Legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
The committee was scheduled to vote on the bill today, but has made arrangements to postpone the vote until as late as July 31. One of the committee's chairmen -- Representative Eugene O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat -- has expressed skepticism about the measure, though he has not taken a public position on the bill yet.
Though similar measures have failed at least twice before, victims' advocates say the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis has galvanized grass-roots pressure on lawmakers.
''This bill has never made it through the system, but the citizens of the state are pushing for change in many,many communities around the Commonwealth," said Jetta Bernier,executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, an advocacy group.
Under current law, sexual crimes against children cannot be criminally prosecuted if more than six, 10, or 15 years have elapsed, varying with the severity of the crime. In some cases, the statute of limitations clock starts ticking on an alleged victim's 16th birthday.
In addition, civil cases cannot be brought against alleged child abusers more than three years after the abuse took place or three years after the alleged victim's 18th birthday.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, joining the high-profile parade of support for the measure yesterday, told lawmakers that his office was only able to prosecute a small fraction of alleged abuse cases because of the statute of limitations.
''No victim should be prohibited from having their day in court because the clock ran out," Conley said.
Supporters stressed that their legislation isn't aimed solely at clergy abuse cases, though the Catholic Church scandal remains an example cited by many of the advocates and has contributed to rocky relations on Beacon Hill. Many lawmakers and the church have been at odds over same-sex marriage, adoption by gay couples, and stem cell research. Earlier this year, however, the Catholic Church and other religious groups helped defeat legislation that would have required religious organizations to file annual financial reports with the state.
Last week, in a civil matter, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said that88 people who were offered arbitration to settle allegations of sexual abuse by priests had agreed to let an arbitrator decide their compensation. The archdiocese said the awards are expected to average$75,000, about half the average amount that it paid to 554 plaintiffs in a landmark settlement in 2003.
Statutes of limitations vary from offense to offense, but generally exist to prevent faulty prosecutions based on dated evidence and faded memories, as well as to allow authorities to move on to newer cases. However, murders have no statute of limitations in Massachusetts.
Commenting on the rights of defendants in abuse cases, the bill's sponsor, state Senator Steven A. Tolman, a Brighton Democrat, said, ''Child predators should not have rights."
Other than the occasional skeptical question from Judiciary Committee members, yesterday's hearing was entirely dominated by those supporting the bill, including several psychologists and therapists who repeatedly said that child sexual abuse is unlike any other crime.
''Shame keeps children from telling anyone when it first happens and can keep them silent for many, many years," said Ann Hagan Webb, a psychologist and New England coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group. ''It often takes decades to get past that."
The advocates presented lawmakers with a small-scale survey by Boston lawyer Carmen Durso, who represents many alleged abuse victims. He found that it took an average of 32.3 years before child sexual abuse victims revealed the episode.
Lawmakers also heard testimony from Roy Simmons, a former player with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, who recently revealed in a published memoir that he had been raped by a family acquaintance at age11 and suffered mental anguish that led to drug problems and depression.
''I felt that it was my fault," said Simmons, a Martha's Vineyard resident. ''I'm still in therapy."