Statute of Limitations Extended for Civil Sex Abuse Claims

Massachusetts legislators have passed a bill to extend by 32 years the statute of limitations for filing civil suits against perpetrators of sexual abuse of minors.

The new law gives child victims of sexual abuse until age 53 to sue their alleged abusers.

The law also allows lawsuits against abuser’s supervisors and the institution that they worked or volunteered for from the point the bill is signed and going forward, but not retroactively. Many lawyers who represent abuse victims expressed disappointment it the law will not allow people older than 21 to retroactively sue those who supervised their alleged abusers or the institutions that employed them.

The new law also extends from three years to seven the period in which a lawsuit can be filed after the recovery of repressed memories of childhood abuse.

Despite the disappointment over the non-retroactivity of the ability to sue supervisors or institutions, the passing of the law does mean that cases previously barred because of a statute of limitations ending at age 21 will now be eligible to be filed against the abusers themselves.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference released a statement supporting the legislation and affirming the bishops’ commitment to helping the victims and families of child sexual abuse survivors.

According to Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a child welfare advocacy group, the bill is the result of difficult negotiations with the Catholic conference.

“As in any negotiation process, one never gets all that they want,” Bernier told NCR in an interview June 20.

“Negotiators were faced with an all-or-nothing choice and so chose to do what was currently possible for the greatest numbers of survivors,” she said in a statement posted to the organization’s website June 19.

A bill extending the statute of limitations in the state legislature in 2012 met heavy church resistance and failed.

Bernier told NCR that last November at a meeting of the bill’s advocates, they realized that support from the Catholic church was essential if the bill was going to become law this year.

Bernier’s group took advantage of the Vatican’s announcement in December that Pope Francis had appointed Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley to head a special commission to advise him on sex abuse.

“We would have preferred for survivors today who were time barred from filing civil charges in the past to have had the ability to not only file civil charges against their individual abuser, but also against any employer or institution and any supervisor in that organization that was responsible in their part either through their action or inaction for their abuse,” Bernier said.

The latter piece was a sticking point for the church and was dropped so that the church would support the rest of the bill, she said.

“We succeeded in collaborating with those who were not necessarily supportive of our efforts in the past,” said Bernier. “So for us, it’s a great day.”

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told The Boston Globe that the bill is a “very big step forward” but is disappointed that institutions are still shielded from some claims.

Clohessy said his group is “saddened but not surprised that Catholic officials lobbied so hard to continue evading responsibility for child-molesting clerics.”