House Leader Sees Momentum Behind Long-stalled Child Sexual Abuse Bill

By Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 14, 2012….Rosanne Sliney was 5 years old when her uncle allegedly started sexually abusing her, abuse that would last until she was 14 years old.

When she was an adult, her uncle wrote her a letter apologizing for the alleged abuse, she said. The letter could be used as evidence against him, but the alleged crimes have passed the statute of limitations, making it impossible for her to press charges, she said.

Sliney and other childhood sexual abuse victims gathered at the capitol Wednesday pushing lawmakers to pass legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations for sex abuse crimes against children. Advocates said they have overwhelming support among House lawmakers to get it passed, with 101 state representatives saying they favor changing the law – enough for it to pass in the 158-member House.

They asked that the bill be released from committee for debate and a floor vote in the House.

“Momentum is beginning to build a little bit for this bill,” House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano (D-Quincy) told the News Service. “We are hoping we can get something done before the end of the session.”

Sex abuse victims say the statute of limitations needs to be repealed because often they are unable to confront abusers or seek criminal charges until they are well into adulthood. The reverberations of abuse make it hard to face, and their ability to seek justice should not be hampered by a timeframe, victims say.

“We believe there should be no time clock because the effects of sexual abuse are so long-lasting and so destructive to their lives,” said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children.

In 2006, lawmakers extended the statute of limitations on sex crimes against children from 15 years after their 16th birthday to 27 years after they turn 16.

Sliney said when the statute of limitations ran out on the crimes committed against her she was 43 years old, she was hospitalized and unable to handle any criminal proceedings. Now, at 48, she feels strong enough to endure a possible trial, but the statute of limitations prevents it. She would like to see the statute abolished “so we (victims) can move forward.”

Forty-one other states have adopted laws repealing statutes of limitation for sexual abuse crimes against children, including Maine. New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania legislators are also contemplating similar laws.

“The majority of states have done something to accommodate the fact that victims don’t come forward for years,” said Carmen Durso, an attorney with the group Coalition to Reform Sex Abuse Laws.

The bill (H 469) is in the Judiciary Committee, awaiting action since a hearing last September. It would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for indecent assault and battery and rape for all minors; eliminate the “defense of charitable immunity” with respect to childhood sex abuse claims; and provide crime victim compensation funds for mental health treatment to childhood sexual abuse victims who report abuse as adults.

Mariano, who has filed variations of the bill since 2002, said he is pleased with the incremental progress that has been made on it over the years, including raising the statute of limitations to 27 years. This session 41 lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors. He said he plans to continue talking with the chairs of the Judiciary Committee to move it forward, and added it is an issue that resonated with him.

“In meeting with victims and talking with folks who experienced this, it becomes apparent it is a very difficult issue to deal with and it takes people an awful long time to come to grips with what happened to them,” Mariano said. “The argument that we need more time, that the statute of limitations was a barrier to bringing these criminals to justice started to take hold with me.”

A spokesman for Sen. Cynthia Creem, (D-Newton), the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said she has not taken a public position on the bill. It is one of several bills still before the Judiciary Committee that requires action before next Wednesday – the legislative deadline when all joint committees must report on all bills before them. A spokeswoman for House co-chair Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea) could not be reached for comment.

Middlesex District Attorney Gerard Leone also supports the bill.

“We are supportive of minimizing the effect of statute of limitations from precluding prosecution generally, but especially where it impacts vulnerable victims like children who face unique barriers against disclosure,” said Jessica Pastore, a spokeswoman for the district attorney.

Opponents of repealing the statute of limitations argue there are legal reasons for it.

James Driscoll, the executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said his organization submitted testimony in opposition to the bill last fall. The Catholic Conference believes the statute of limitations, as currently written, is fair for both plaintiffs and defendants, he said.

“The statute of limitations provides important protections both in civil and criminal cases. The U.S. Supreme Court and the Massachusetts SJC recognize the downside or the dangers in eliminating the statutes of limitations – evidence becomes old, memories fade, witnesses die, and so forth,” Driscoll said.

“We are not speaking out against anyone who has been a victim of abuse. That is not the case,” Driscoll added.

Some oppose the idea of eliminating the charitable immunity cap. Current law protects public charities by capping compensatory damages at $20,000, but the bill would lift that immunity for cases of “intentional or negligent conduct which caused or contributed to the sexual abuse of a minor.”

The charitable cap was described as one of the “sticking points” to moving the bill along, according to advocates and staff in Mariano’s office.

Victim advocates want the cap eliminated, but other charitable organizations believe it should remain in place, including the Massachusetts Hospital Association.

“While we haven’t fully reviewed the text of HB469 or offered any comments to the committee on the bill, MHA is strongly supportive of constructive steps to address childhood sexual abuse. The charitable immunity cap was adopted by the commonwealth because it services the public interest and helps support all charitable resources that benefit our communities. That’s why it is still critically important,” Catherine Bromberg, a spokeswoman for Massachusetts Hospital Association said in an email.

Rep. Thomas Stanley (D-Waltham) and Rep. John Lawn (D-Watertown) both spoke to the group at the State House to lobby lawmakers to push for passage.

“This makes a big difference, your being here,” Stanley said. “It is only with the help of people like you that we can change this law.”

Stanley said the issue touches him because he grew up of with Sliney, a Waltham resident. It is the closest he has come to a victim who had the courage to stand up, he said.

Lawn said it is outrageous that Sliney has a letter from her alleged abuser admitting guilt, yet he is still “walking around.”

“Clearly there is something wrong with that,” Lawn said.

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