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Senate plan would end time limits on child sex abuse cases

May 26, 2006 | AP

A plan to lift the statute of limitations on criminal child sex abuse cases further fallout from the clergy sex abuse scandal won the unanimous backing of the Massachusetts Senate this week, but not everyone is cheering.

Some victim advocates say the plan doesn't go far enough because it doesn't specifically include incest and some sex crimes against older teens.

And defense attorneys say eliminating statutes of limitations is generally a bad idea because it lets alleged victims lob allegations sometimes decades after the fact, when memories have faded and potential witnesses may be hard to track down.

Sen. Steven Tolman, the sponsor of the budget amendment, said the crime of child sexual abuse is so heinous, the change is justified.

"Too many of these predators have been able to hide behind the veil of a technicality," said Tolman, D-Boston. "There should be no leeway for that type of crime."

The state has to maintain a delicate balance between giving alleged crime victims enough time to bring accusations and the needs of those being accused to have a chance to mount a fair defense.

The greater the time between the alleged crime and the accusation, the harder that job becomes, according to John Reinstein, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts.

"A statute of limitations is in some respect an arbitrary figure, but one that is rooted in real concerns about the fairness of the proceedings," he said. "These things ought to be brought in a timely manner."

Tolman said he understands those concerns, but said child sex abuse is a unique kind of crime. Many children who are abused can suppress those memories well into adulthood.

The amendment deals with narrow group of crimes, including indecent assault against a child under 14, indecent assault against a mentally retarded person, and rape of a child under 16.

Jetta Bernier of Massachusetts Citizens for Children said she was disappointed senators narrowed the scope of the original bill, which had included other crimes such as incest.

"A third of a loaf is not enough," she said. "As far as we're concerned we want the whole loaf."

The push to lift the statute of limitation comes in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Massachusetts.

An investigation by Attorney General Tom Reilly found in 2003 that at least 1,000 children were likely victimized by more than 235 priests and church workers from 1940 to 2000.

But since the scandal first erupted in Boston in 2002, only handful of priests have been prosecuted in Massachusetts criminal courts in many cases because the statute of limitations had run out.

Carmen Durso, a Boston lawyer who has settled dozens of sexual abuse lawsuits against the Boston Archdiocese, said the statute of limitations should also be lifted for sexual assault against children over 14 because some sexual predators will deliberately wait until a child is older.

"We are giving perpetrators a way of avoiding prosecution," he said.

Tolman defended the narrower language, saying it improved the chances that the changes would become law.

"We wanted to keep it clean and crisp," he said.

Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley, whose office won a high-profile conviction last year against former priest Paul Shanley for rapes that occurred in the 1980s, said she also supports lifting the statute of limitations. She said due to the nature of the crime, some victims cannot come forward until later in life.

She downplayed concerns that the change would bring a flood of criminal prosecutions.

"We look at these cases very thoroughly," Coakley said. "If it's a questionable case, or there isn't enough evidence, the district attorney isn't going to bring the case in the first place."

The amendment now heads to a six-member House and Senate conference committee charged with hammering out differences between the House and Senate versions of the state budget. The House hasn't debated the statute of limitations bill and didn't include it in their budget.

Gov. Mitt Romney's communications director Eric Fehrnstrom said the governor supports stronger laws against child sex abusers, but hasn't seen this legislation.

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