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Church Scandal Prompts Push To Change Laws

Apr 9, 2003 | The Herald News Legislators unveiled a new House bill Tuesday that, if passed, will eliminate all time limits on criminal prosecutions for rape and other sex crimes in the commonwealth.

The bill’s inception was spurred on by many organizations formed in the wake of the Catholic Church controversy over a number of alleged sexual molestation cases that in some cases cannot be tried in criminal court because the statute of limitations had expired.

The current statute of limitations for sexual abuse of a child in Massachusetts is now 15 years, starting from the date the alleged victim turned 16 or from the first report to law enforcement.

The new bill, known as House Bill 1895, which is being sponsored by a host of legislators including Rep. Ronald Mariano, D-Quincy, will attempt to end the statute of limitations in cases involving sex crimes.

The statute of limitations in sex crimes has long been debated among Bristol County officials, including Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh.

Last fall, Walsh released a list of 21 priests in the Diocese of Fall River who his office said had likely been engaged in sexual misconduct during their tenure as priests.

But Walsh was only able to indict one of the 21 priest listed due to the state’s statute of limitations regarding sex crimes.

Walsh was able to indict former Massachusetts priest Donald J. Bowen thanks to a loophole in the statute.

Bowen was an exception to the rule because he left the state to help run a Catholic missionary society in Bolivia for about 28 years.

When someone leaves the jurisdiction where the incident occurred, the statute of limitations freezes until that person comes back. Therefore, the statute didn’t run out on Bowen’s alleged crimes because he was out of the country.

Nevertheless, Walsh said last fall he would have been able to prosecute many of the other accused priests if he didn’t receive information about them so many years after their alleged crimes.

"If we got the names 10 years ago, maybe we would have been able to prosecute some more of them," Walsh said last September. "But now we’ll never know if we could have indicted others. The most frustrating thing about it is that some may have gotten away with rape."

Although Walsh was unavailable for comment Tuesday afternoon, a woman who is helping publicize the legislative bill said she will invite him to speak in favor of the bill at a public hearing on the matter Thursday.

"I know that Paul Walsh has been very outspoken about this and I am trying to contact him," said Anne Doyle, a founding member of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors. "I know he has expressed a lot of frustration about the statute of limitations."

Doyle, of Reading, said the filing of the bill is a "direct response to the crisis in the church."

She said a similar effort to change the statute was defeated last year, but she is optimistic about its chances this session.

"The statute is a hideous Catch-22 actually," Doyle said.

She said many young victims of sexual abuse usually don’t come to the "psychological reality" of what actually happened until many years have passed.

"I was outraged when all this news came out," Doyle said. "Now, I am very moved by the people I have met who were victimized by the church."

Although the bill seeks to abolish the statute of limitations for sex crimes, it most likely will not be retroactive.

If the law was retroactive, then the 20 accused Diocese of Fall River priests could legally be criminally charged.

"I don’t think we can go back and change laws, but the victims of today will be helped and it will send a message," Doyle asserted. "We’re still going to hold our breath though because there still might be some wiggle room on retroactivity."

The Judiciary Committee of the Legislature will consider whether to recommend passage of the legislation after Thursday’s public hearing at the Statehouse.

Doyle said a number of prominent mental health professionals are expected to speak or submit written statements explaining why sex abuse victims often cannot report the crimes for years.

Other organizations like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, The Linkup, Survivor’s First, Speak Truth to Power and Voice of the Faithful will also be on hand to support the bill.

Doyle also hopes outspoken prosecutors like Walsh and others will be able to attend the hearing.

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