Editorial: Extension of child sexual abuse statute of limitations to help many survivors
on July 18, 2014 at 4:10 PM
Victims of child sexual abuse now have until they reach the age of 53 to sue the perpetrators of this heinous and all too common crime.
The law, signed by Gov. Deval Patrick last week, extends the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits by three decades. Until last week the statute of limitations expired at the age of 21.
This change will mean that those who are traumatized will have additional time to decide whether to pursue civil litigation, which can be harrowing and difficult at best, traumatizing at worst.
The criminal statute of limitations was extended in 2006 from 15 years after a victim’s 16th birthday to 27 years.
Kathy Picard, of Ludlow, worked for a dozen years to get the law changed, and last week she stood with Gov. Deval Patrick as he signed the bill.
Picard said she told family members about her childhood sexual abuse, which took place from the time she was 7 to 17, and like so many of her generation, she was told to keep quiet.
Congratulations to Picard for her persistence. Her work will help others attain a small measure of justice.
The floodgates are likely to open now, as adult victims pursue justice to right a wrong that can never be justified or fully atoned for or paid for through a legal settlement or penalty.
Ultimately, changing the past would be the only way to fully compensate victims for the damage done to their bodies, psyches and spirits.
Church Battles Efforts to Ease Sex Abuse Suits
By Laurie Goodstein and Erik Eckholm
Published June 14, 2012
While the first criminal trial of a Roman Catholic church official accused of covering up child sexual abuse has drawn national attention to Philadelphia, the church has been quietly engaged in equally consequential battles over abuse, not in courtrooms but in state legislatures around the country.
The fights concern proposals to loosen statutes of limitations, which impose deadlines on when victims can bring civil suits or prosecutors can press charges. These time limits, set state by state, have held down the number of criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits against all kinds of people accused of child abuse — not just clergy members, but also teachers, youth counselors and family members accused of incest.
Victims and their advocates in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York are pushing legislators to lengthen the limits or abolish them altogether, and to open temporary “windows” during which victims can file lawsuits no matter how long after the alleged abuse occurred.
The Catholic Church has successfully beaten back such proposals in many states, arguing that it is difficult to get reliable evidence when decades have passed and that the changes seem more aimed at bankrupting the church than easing the pain of victims.
Already reeling from about $2.5 billion spent on legal fees, settlements and prevention programs relating to child sexual abuse, the church has fought especially hard against the window laws, which it sees as an open-ended and unfair exposure for accusations from the distant past. In at least two states, Colorado and New York, the church even hired high-priced lobbying and public relations firms to supplement its own efforts. Colorado parishes handed out postcards for churchgoers to send to their representatives, while in Ohio, bishops themselves pressed legislators to water down a bill.
The outcome of these legislative battles could have far greater consequences for the prosecution of child molesters, compensation of victims and financial health of some Catholic dioceses, legal experts say, than the trial of a church official in Philadelphia, where the jury is currently deliberating.
Changing the statute of limitations “has turned out to be the primary front for child sex abuse victims,” said Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University who represents plaintiffs in sexual abuse suits.
“Even when you have an institution admitting they knew about the abuse, the perpetrator admitting that he did it, and corroborating evidence, if the statute of limitations has expired, there won’t be any justice,” she said.
The church’s arguments were forcefully made by Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, in testimony before the State Legislature in January opposing a proposal to abolish the limits in civil cases.
“How can an institution conceivably defend itself against a claim that is 40, 50 or 60 years old?” Mr. Brannigan said. “Statutes of limitation exist because witnesses die and memories fade.”
“This bill would not protect a single child,” he said, while “it would generate an enormous transfer of money in lawsuits to lawyers.”
Timing is a major factor in abuse cases because many victims are unable to talk about abuse or face their accusers until they reach their 30s, 40s or later, putting the crime beyond the reach of the law. In states where the statutes are most restrictive, like New York, the cutoff for bringing a criminal case is age 23 for most serious sexual crimes other than rape that occurred when the victim was a minor.
In more than 30 states, limits have already been lifted or significantly eased on the criminal prosecutions of some types of abuses, according to Professor Hamilton. The Supreme Court ruled that changes in criminal limits cannot be retroactive, so they will affect only recent and future crimes.
In New York, the Catholic bishops said they would support a modest increase in the age of victims in criminal or civil cases, to 28. But their lobbying, along with that of ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders, has so far halted proposals that would allow a one-year window for civil suits for abuses from the past. The bishops say the provision unfairly targets the church because public schools, the site of much abuse, and municipalities have fought successfully to be exempted.
The New Jersey proposal to abolish time limits for civil suits could pass this summer, said its sponsor in the Senate, Joseph Vitale, a Democrat of Woodbridge. The main opposition has come from the Catholic Church, he said. Mr. Brannigan of the Catholic Conference has testified at hearings, and bishops have “reached out to scores of legislators,” Mr. Vitale said, warning that an onslaught of lawsuits could bankrupt their dioceses.
California was the first state to pass a one-year “window” law to bring civil suits, in 2003, and those involved say that the legislation moved so quickly that the church barely responded. But the experience proved a cautionary tale for the church: more than 550 lawsuits flooded in.
Since then, only two states have passed similar laws: Delaware, in 2007, and Hawaii, in April. Window legislation has been defeated in Colorado, Ohio, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and New York.
Joan Fitz-Gerald, former president of the Colorado Senate, who proposed the window legislation, was an active Catholic who said she was stunned to find in church one Sunday in 2006 that the archdiocese had asked priests to raise the issue during a Mass and distribute lobbying postcards.
“It was the most brutal thing I’ve ever been through,” she said of the church campaign. “The politics, the deception, the lack of concern for not only the children in the past, but for children today.” She has since left the church.
The Massachusetts Catholic Conference has spoken out strongly against a bill that would eliminate both criminal and civil statutes of limitations, but advocates still hope to win a two-year window for filing civil claims.
If that happens, “we’ll see a lot more victims come forward, and we’ll find out more about who the abusers are,” said Jetta Bernier, director of the advocacy group Massachusetts Citizens for Children.
The landmark trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn in Philadelphia, who is accused of allowing predators to remain in ministry, almost did not happen because of the statute of limitations.
A scathing grand jury report in 2005 described dozens of victims and offending priests and said that officials, including Philadelphia’s cardinal, had “excused and enabled the abuse.” But the law in place at the time of the crimes required victims to come forth by age 23. “As a result,” the report said, “these priests and officials will necessarily escape criminal prosecution.”
But victims emerged whose abuse fell within the deadline and in 2011, a new grand jury brought charges against Monsignor Lynn, who had supervised priest assignments.
Pennsylvania expanded the limits, and for crimes from 2007 on, charges will be possible up to the time that victims reach age 50. Advocates are now pushing to abolish the statute of limitations for child sex abuse and open a window for civil suits over long-past abuses. But the legislation appears stalled in the face of church opposition.
The new archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput, who led the successful campaign to defeat such a bill in Colorado, says that current restrictions exist for “sound legal reasons.”
Renewed push to update statute-of-limitations laws in child sex abuse cases
Published: 1/23 12:05 pm
Bishop and McGeehan said their respective bills are patterned after ones they introduced in the last two-year legislative session but died after being inexplicably bottled up in the committee process.
Bishop has reintroduced her legislation, now known as H.B. 237, which would abolish the statute of limitations on criminal charges and civil lawsuits in cases of child sexual abuse.
“Child sexual abuse victims are slowly beginning to break the barriers of silence; however, they still face a daunting procedural obstacle — the statute of limitations,” said Bishop, who came out last year as a victim of child sexual abuse. “Instead of suppressing legislation that would lift the statute of limitations, we should be voting these game-changing bills out of committee and the House, so more victims can seek justice.”
McGeehan has introduced H.B. 238 that would suspend any expired statute of limitations for two years in child sex abuse cases, providing a window of opportunity for those victims to file a civil lawsuit. His bill also would seek to make child sexual abuse an exception to the sovereign immunity defense that shields public officials from being sued.
“The effects of child sex abuse are felt everywhere,” McGeehan said. “We are all victims. The scandals which have rocked school districts and dioceses across the country, Penn State, the Boy Scouts — the problem clearly is not going away. Opponents of our measures need to rethink their positions and become part of the solution. Let’s get this done.”
Freshman state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a victim of child sexual abuse by a priest and prime co-sponsor of McGeehan’s legislation, said he is proud to stand as an ally of Bishop and McGeehan in this effort.
“Sexual abuse not only destroys the victim’s life, but its ripple effects can have a dramatic impact on family members and friends as well,” Rozzi said. “Often times the victims suffer in silence, and they see suicide as their only way out. It is now time to break the silence, let their voices be heard and end this vicious cycle of sexual abuse.”
A key supporter of the legislation, former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, said, “Recent revelations about decades of lies and cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the most respected organizations demonstrate the need for the progressive pieces of legislation offered by Representatives Bishop and McGeehan.”
McGeehan praised Abraham for her courageous efforts in convening the exhaustive investigation of the Philadelphia Archdiocese in 2002, which actually empaneled three grand juries.
“To quote former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, she is one tough cookie,” McGeehan said.
Professor Marci A. Hamilton of the Benjamin N. Cardoza School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children” and a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, praised the Bishop-McGeehan-Rozzi effort.
“Statue-of-limitations reform is empowering to victims and their families, and terrifying to pedophiles and their supporting institutions,” said Hamilton, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania law school. “This legislation finally levels the playing field so that victims can come forward when they are ready — and those creating the conditions for abuse are put on notice that they do not have a safe haven in an arbitrary legal technicality.”
John Salveson, founder and president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said the reopening of a window to file civil suits – as called for by the McGeehan bill – can have a profound effect on public awareness.
“This week, the Los Angeles Times broke a story that Catholic Church officials concealed abuse involving 75 priests and 500 victims,” Salveson said. “Those files were released as part of a civil action by child sex abuse victims covered by a one-year window in California that suspended the statute of limitations for past victims. No window, no trial. No trial, no documents. No documents, no exposure of predators. It’s really that simple.”
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