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End to Time Limits In Abuse Cases Urged

Apr 11, 2003 | Boston Globe

Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse argued to a legislative committee yesterday that the current time limits for bringing sex crime prosecutions should be eliminated, saying children who are molested often do not admit what has happened until years, or decades, after the abuse.

''When it comes to sex abuse, kids don't tell; teenagers don't tell; young adults don't tell,'' said Phil Saviano, until recently the coordinator of the New England chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. ''The current statute of limitations is certainly not helping victims. It's protecting the perpetrators.''

The legislation would remove the 15-year window for prosecutors to file cases after an offense is reported or the victim's 16th birthday. Lawyer Carmen Durso, who represents several alleged victims of clergy sex abuse, authored the legislation, which was sponsored by Representative Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat,

Dozens of supporters, many carrying posters with pictures of children who had been sexually abused, sat in on yesterday's standing-room-only hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

Some victims who testified for the legislation spoke of waiting until they were well into middle-age before admitting they had been abused. ''Denial seems to be our greatest defense,'' said SNAP's William Gately, who told the committee he did not report the abuse until 25 years after it had ended.

John Harris of Norwood, who has alleged in a civil lawsuit that he was raped by the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, told the committee that he kept the incident a secret for 24 years, saying he felt ''powerless in the face of such a large institution as the Catholic church.''

Speaking before the hearing, proponent Anne Barrett Doyle called the legislation, ''the best way to get justice for victims of clergy sexual abuse.'' Doyle, of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, said psychological barriers prevent victims from talking about abuse particularly if it involved someone they trusted until they gain enough distance from the events. ''The nature of the trauma is that you cannot face it until decades later,'' said Doyle.

The proposal also contains a provision to make the change retroactive to the extent permissible under the federal and state constitutions. If the new law is retroactive, the government could prosecute people for rape or sexual abuse no matter how long ago the crime occurred, but some think it unlikely such a provision would pass constitutional muster.

Durso said it's a ''longshot'' that the Supreme Judicial Court would allow complete retroactivity.

Some criminal defense lawyers reached yesterday were critical of the proposal. Timothy P. O'Neill, who represents a church official in civil lawsuits and represents priests in criminal cases, called the legislation ''a terrible mistake.'' He said it would eliminate a protection for defendants that has long been built into the criminal justice system.

''It is totally catering to popular passion,'' said O'Neill.

Criminal defense lawyer Thomas M. Hoopes added that the bill ''really eliminates the rights of individuals and puts all rights in the hands of purported victims.'' The longer the time between a crime and the prosecution, said Hoopes, the harder it is to conduct a trial. ''Any delay, whether it be days, weeks or a year, impacts on your ability to get a case together.''

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