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Lawmakers seek to end limits on church liability

Abuse cases are targeted

Jan 4, 2006 | Boston Globe

Support is growing on Beacon Hill for legislation to lift charitable immunity protections for the Catholic Church and other nonprofit organizations in sexual abuse cases involving minors.

More than 60 lawmakers have signed onto a bill that, in civil cases involving such abuse, would eliminate the current $20,000 limit on liability for churches and other nonprofit organizations. That charitable immunity limit, supporters say, has discouraged sexual abuse victims from coming forward and has sharply limited payments in other cases.

Two other bills would restructure the complicated laws governing the statute of limitations in criminal and civil cases involving sex crimes against juveniles. Current laws lay out various limitations based on the number of years that elapse after a sexual crime is allegedly committed.

The House is also slated this month to take up a fourth bill, sponsored by Senator Marian Walsh, a West Roxbury Democrat, that would force the Archdiocese of Boston and other religious organizations to file public financial disclosure reports with the attorney general's office. In November, the Senate approved the measure, which is strongly opposed by several religious and nonprofit organizations. Governor Mitt Romney has expressed his support.

The bills highlight the increasing willingness of the state's politicians to take on the politically powerful Catholic Church, as it attempts to settle dozens of abuse cases and improve its financial situation.

''The Legislature is responding to the public," Walsh said of the pending legislation. ''They don't see the institutions policing themselves, and we have the opportunity to set things right. Rank-and-file citizens are offering the leadership. They are the ones stepping forward."

Massachusetts is one of a handful of states that place limits on how much money nonprofits have to pay for harm caused by negligence. Last month, New Jersey's General Assembly voted to repeal charitable immunity for churches and other nonprofits in sexual abuse cases.

The Bay State's $20,000 limit for nonprofits affects many kinds of negligence; the proposed change would involve only cases involving sexual abuse of a minor. The bill says, in part, that the charitable immunity ''shall not apply if the claim is for intentional or negligent conduct which caused or contributed to the sexual abuse of a minor."

But, the legislative road for the bills dealing with the statute of limitations and charitable immunity will be rough. Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who is the House chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, expressed some concerns about the statute of limitations bill and indicated that his committee has other priorities, including toughening up some current sex-offender laws.

''I have some strong reservations about changing statutes of limitations," said O'Flaherty, a defense lawyer. ''I think they serve a very strong public purpose. Sometimes the rationale behind them is not necessarily appealing, but they do play a very important role in our judicial systems. We have to be deferential to the statute of limitations and very cautious when dealing with proposals to change them."

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy office of the Catholic Church's four dioceses in Massachusetts, opposes the bills, but expressed particular concern about changing the statute of limitations for sexual abuse involving children.

''The position for the church is that it is opposed to any legislation that crosses the lines of separation of church and state," said Edward Saunders, the conference's executive director. He said the organization opposes elimination of the statute of limitations for sex abuse because ''as time goes by there is a weakening of testimony and evidence."

''The Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Massachusetts recognizes there is a separation of government and religions, and anything that weakens that we would be opposed to," Saunders said.

After languishing for several years, the bills are gaining support as public ire continues to grow over church closings and the sexual abuse crisis. Advocates and lawyers for alleged victims have lined up sponsors behind the proposed changes in charitable immunity and the statute of limitations, including Massachusetts Citizens for Children.

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who initially expressed strong reservations about the statute of limitations bill, now backs it. He has not taken a position on the charitable immunity bill, a spokesman said.

Those pushing the legislative changes say they hope to force a showdown vote that they are sure they can win on the House and Senate floors, particularly as the archdiocese continues to face criticism over its policies and actions in dealing with the sex abuse scandal and the church's fiscal problems.

''The church keeps shooting itself in its foot, but the debate is broader than just the church," said Representative Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat and one of the lead sponsors of the bills.

Mariano argued that young victims of sexual abuse rarely come forward at the time the crime occurs, often delaying for years coming to grips with what happened and being willing to face molesters.

''I keep trying make the point that it is more about the victims than the church," Mariano said. ''People come to grips with what happens at different stages of their life."

Certain nonprofit hospitals have protections under the charitable immunity limitation. However, the Massachusetts Hospital Association said yesterday that it would not oppose the bill to lift the charitable immunity exemption for sexual abuse claims against charities.

''The hospitals are strongly supportive of the charitable immunity cap," said Michal Regunberg, a spokeswoman for the hospital association. ''But on the initial reading of this act, we would not oppose it. We believe this is consistent with the mission of hospitals."

The bills are getting renewed attention on Beacon Hill as negotiations over a new set of sexual abuse victims have become public. The Globe reported last week that the archdiocese has offered $7.5 million to about 100 alleged victims of sexual abuse.

Yesterday, attorneys representing the alleged victims held a press conference to denounce the offer. Nearly 20 lawyers plan to form a steering committee that will serve as a united body in settlement discussions with the archdiocese.

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