By Travis Andersen
December 09, 2013
Child welfare advocates are calling on the head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to back legislation that would extend the statute of limitations in Massachusetts on cases brought by victims of childhood sexual abuse.
The open letter to Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley came days after he announced a major effort by Pope Francis to explore ways the church can protect children from abuse and to care for victims. The new Vatican commission marks the Catholic Church’s first comprehensive effort to address a scandal that exploded in 2002 in Boston and become a worldwide crisis.
The bills in Massachusetts are the latest efforts by advocates to get the state Legislature to allow more time for victims of childhood sexual abuse to pursue their alleged abusers in state court. One proposal would allow abuse victims to file a lawsuit in civil court up to the age of 55. Current law generally caps the filing age at 21. A separate bill would open a one-year window for those older than 55 to file claims. In criminal cases, accusers have until age 43 to file charges. The civil and criminal rules apply to all abuse cases and are not limited to church-related incidents.
A spokesman Sunday declined to disclose the archdiocese’s position on the proposals. But when the Legislature considered a more sweeping measure last year, the archdiocese’s policy arm, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, warned that it could open church organizations to additional liability in decades-old cases and harm their charitable efforts.
On Sunday, a group of advocates led by Massachusetts Citizens for Children sent an open letter to O’Malley, arguing that the current legislation aligns with church principles, as stated by the Catholic Conference.
“Protecting the ‘dignity of the human person and the sanctity of [all] human lives,’ the expressed goals of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, apply to the quest for justice that victims of sexual abuse and advocates for children have been on for so long,” the advocates wrote.
By supporting the legislation, the advocates added, “you can help us help them and prevent more children from being abused.”
Lawmakers have until the end of the legislative session in July 2014 to send a bill to the governor’s desk for final passage.
Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, said in a statement that the church continues to seek forgiveness from anyone harmed by “these reprehensible acts” and remains vigilant in its efforts to protect children. “We indemnify and provide services for any person impacted by the sexual abuse of minors in the Church, regardless of when the abuse took place,” Donilon said. “We have been humbled to witness the strength and courage of many survivors through their inspirational accounts of faith and healing.”
During consideration of similar legislation last year, opponents said they feared it could expose dioceses and affiliated groups to additional liability, and potentially undermine the church’s already shaky finances. That previous bill initially called for eliminating the statute of limitations entirely for child sex abuse cases, and for eliminating a $20,000 cap on civil damages for nonprofits.
James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Catholic Conference, said in May 2012 that the measure would “have an immediate and harmful impact on the ability of all nonprofits, not just the Catholic Church, to serve thousands of people who rely on these organizations.’’
Driscoll did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.
The archdiocese has waived the statute of limitations and the charitable immunity cap in many cases it has settled out of court. The church has spent the last 10 years trying to address a massive sexual abuse scandal that in Boston alone has involved more than 1,100 victims and cost the archdiocese about $150 million in damages from civil lawsuits.
Jetta Bernier, executive director of Citizens For Children, known also as MassKids, said in an interview that opponents’ concerns about the financial harm to the church’s charitable programs are misplaced. She said the majority of victims of childhood sexual abuse were not targeted by priests but rather other authority figures including teachers, coaches, and relatives.
And, Bernier said, the church “should base its actions on moral reasonings, not on economic ones.”
Lisa Wangsness, Stephanie Ebbert, and Milton J. Valencia of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
© 2013 Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC
Letter: Church must move to right side on sex crimes billwww.berkshireeagle.comTo the Editor of THE EAGLE: Once again, bills have been introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature to reform our outmoded Statutes of
Letter: Church must move to right side on sex crimes bill
Letter to the Editor
POSTED: 11/27/2013 12:09:53 AM EST
UPDATED: 11/27/2013 12:09:54 AM EST
To the Editor of THE EAGLE:
Once again, bills have been introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature to reform our outmoded Statutes of Limitations (SOL) laws "for certain sexual crimes against children." The first were in 2004. Crimes against our youngest and most vulnerable population go unpunished for many reasons: most are unreported; when they are reported, most claims are ignored; and finally, it takes many years for victims to realize what has happened to them, find their footing, and seek justice in a court of law.
It is during this time, a critical "window" of realization, that claims often lapse and become time-barred. Justice demands a counter-balancing "window" during which worthy claimants could come forward irrespective of the elapsed time, and press a claim. Indeed, H.1455 and S.633 are called "window legislation" for this reason. Victim’s claims will not ultimately succeed if they are not underpinned by compelling evidence; yet, without change to the SOL laws, their claims, however just, have no chance at all.
Every state that has proposed changes to SOL rules for child sexual abuse has met opposition from a powerful political force: the Catholic church. In 2008 the late Ed Saunders, chief lobbyist for the church, submitted written testimony against changes to SOL. There were three objections: The moral argument was that changes would unfairly impose new obligations on institutions and new liability on alleged pedophiles; the corporate argument maintained that it was irresponsible to punish the institution for the failings of individuals over which the institution had no control; and the economic argument was that if the church became insolvent through damage awards resulting from increased liability, the costs of the social programs that had been provided to society would then be thrust upon taxpayers.
The church’s opposition to SOL changes has evolved. In an address to over 60 legislators on Oct. 17, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, the archbisop of Boston, put the economic argument front and center and has said nothing publicly about the relative fairness or corporate aspects of the bills. It’s possible that the incongruity of endorsing more protection for pedophiles than for children has registered on the cardinal. It’s also possible that the employment review and employment retention policies of the church he governs have been found lacking. Or, perhaps the fact that most child sex crimes are perpetrated by family members, not members of the clergy or teachers, has played a part.
Just as banks trade in coin, churches trade in trust. By all accounts, the Catholic church in the commonwealth has lost an enormous amount of trust over the last 10 years or so. Has the cardinal changed his approach because the church can no longer afford to be on the wrong side of this issue? If so, letters to him from faithful parishioners might tip the balance, make his conversion complete, and put the Catholic Church where it belongs: on the right side of this issue.
ROBERT M. KELLY