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Legislators to consider compromise on sex abuse bill

Grants more time to victims

Jul 4, 2006 | Boston Globe The Legislature will take up a compromise bill that would give victims who were sexually abused as children 25 years to report criminal cases to authorities.

The proposal, endorsed by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary where it had languished, extends the current statute of limitations by 10 years, giving childhood victims until they are 41 years old to report sexual crimes. But it does not abolish the statute all together as proponents had wanted, and as the legislation moves to the House, it is drawing fire.

Eliminating statutes of limitations for sex crimes has been a simmering issue for years. Opponents say limitations minimize the risk of people being wrongly convicted many years later, when evidence is scarce and memories have faded. Advocates say the limits hinder justice for victims of sexual abuse.

State Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty, the House chairman for the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said that through testimony, he learned most victims come to terms with childhood abuse between ages 28 and 34. Democrat O'Flaherty, who was previously leaning toward a 5-year extension, said giving victims 10 more years would ``absolutely cover the bulk of the individuals as was represented to us."

But advocates pushing for elimination of the statute of limitations in Massachusetts said the committee's proposal was too weak, and they were joined by Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a Democratic candidate for governor who said on Friday lawmakers should ``eliminate the statute of limitations."

The bill does not affect crimes such as incest, civil cases, and crimes against children older than 14. Under current law, sexual crimes cannot be prosecuted after a certain number of years have elapsed ranging from six years for crimes such as taking sexually explicit pictures of a child, to 15 years for the most severe crimes, including rape. The joint committee proposal would extend the limitation only for the most severe crimes.

``While the bill is necessary, it is inefficient," said Jetta Bernier , executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children . ``More work needs to be done."

Across the country, advocacy groups have been fighting to repeal state laws that limit the time when sexual abuse crimes can be prosecuted.

After the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, more supporters emerged to wage war on the sexual abuse of children, which the American Medical Association labeled ``a silent, violent epidemic." New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii all have pending legislation that would extend the time limits for sex abuse cases, according to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests .

``It's happening now because it's long overdue," said David Clohessy , national director of the advocacy group based in Chicago. ``I think the public and the politicians understand now that the reason thousands of Catholic clergy molested tens of thousands of kids is largely due to the archaic and arbitrary statute of limitations."

Massachusetts' legislative session ends July 31, and for the past few weeks members of the Coalition to Reform Sex Abuse Laws have intensified lobbying efforts, airing radio ads, passing out leaflets on city streets, and urging victims to contact their legislators.

Advocates have argued that because of shame and intimidation, victims often take many years before reporting sexual crimes. Some supporters have complained that defense lawyers on Beacon Hill have ``stonewalled" legislation. Many defense lawyers have opposed such measures, saying the crimes become much harder to defend as time passes.

``I don't view anything I do as being protective of the defense bar," said O'Flaherty, an attorney. ``I try to use my background and my experience as a lawyer to make a fair recommendation. We're supposed to examine these proposals, not just rubber stamp them."

Before the session ends, House lawmakers will debate and vote on the committee's proposal, which is subject to amendments. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference supports the proposed 10-year extension. ``We, the Roman Catholic Bishops in Massachusetts, again recognize and apologize for the suffering that has occurred for survivors and their families," according to the Bishops' statement.

``The Catholic Church, nationally and locally, has made it a priority to create safe environments in our churches and schools and to continue to provide support to survivors and to all people who have suffered as a result of sexual abuse."

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