Boston Archdiocese opposes bill eliminating time limits for child sex abuse claims

20190222 Briefing about PBC2019 at Agustinianum Daniel Ibanez 7 Cardinal Sean O'Malley briefs reporters during a Vatican abuse summit. | Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

The Archdiocese of Boston is opposing a state bill that would eliminate the time limit for filing a civil lawsuit for claims of sexual abuse of children, saying it would put its efforts to assist victims at risk. 

In 2014, the state enacted a bill that extended the statute of limitations to when the plaintiff turns 53 or seven years after the plaintiff “discovered or reasonably should have discovered that an emotional or psychological injury or condition was caused by such act.” 

The current bill being considered by the Legislature would eliminate the time limit and allow lawsuits at any time against a purported perpetrator or against a defendant that “negligently supervised a person who sexually abused a minor” or “caused or contributed to the sexual abuse of a minor by another person.” 

Supporters of the bill say it would help more traumatized victims get justice and healing. 

William Giblin, 55, of Methuen, Massachusetts, told a legislative committee last month he was “sexually, physically, and emotionally” abused by a priest at a seminary where he was sent to do court-ordered community service at age 14 and that he subsequently suffered for years from shame and drug addiction and has had problems with trust and relationships. 

“These institutions need to be held accountable for the damage it’s done to so many children. … So many people overdose or commit suicide because of the secret you keep, and the toll it takes on your body,” Giblin told members of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary during a public hearing Sept. 12. “Please eliminate the statute of limitation. You can’t force someone to start talking about this. It’s when you’re ready, period.” 

Another supporter of the bill, Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, told the committee that eliminating the statute of limitations would educate the public about the problem and shift financial costs away from victims and taxpayers and “to the bad guys where it belongs.” 

“And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it identifies hidden sexual predators,” Robb said during the hearing

Child USA, a nonprofit organization that supports eliminating statutes of limitations for child sex abuse for civil and criminal cases, says that as of earlier this year 17 states, the federal government, and two territories had eliminated time limits for filing civil lawsuits “for some or all” child sex abuse claims. 

But an opponent of the bill said removing time limits retroactively makes it hard for an organization to defend itself from long-ago claims or to make adequate provisions to protect itself going forward. 

Cary Silverman, a lawyer representing the American Tort Reform Association, said statutes of limitations “have a critical function in the civil justice system.” 

“They’re there to allow judges and juries to evaluate liability when the evidence is available, before records are lost and witnesses disappear. Their length doesn’t reflect the severity of the injury or the reprehensibility of the conduct. They’re there based on evidence that will be needed to accurately decide liability in any sort of civil action,” Silverman said during the hearing Sept. 12. 

Silverman said the American Tort Reform Association doesn’t oppose what he called “a lengthy statute of limitations,” but he said there must be limits. 

“In the revived lawsuits that will result from this bill, there may be no doubt that the plaintiff has experienced horrific abuse. The question that will be difficult or impossible to fairly answer is whether decades ago an organization could have detected that abuse or have had additional practices in place that might have prevented or stopped the employee or the volunteer who committed it,” Silverman said. 

“In a revived action alleging that a school failed to prevent abuse in 1965, for example — the type of claim you’re going to see — a 35-year-old employee from that time, who would serve as a witness now, would be 93 years old. And any paper records from that time would be gone.” 

Widespread public awareness of the clergy sex abuse problem in the Catholic Church began in the Archdiocese of Boston, where in January 2002 The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team uncovered scores of priest-abusers and victims. (As of 2021, the Globe reported, the archdiocese had identified 132 priest-abusers; as of 2017, the archdiocese had met with more than 1,000 victims.) 

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston contacted Wednesday by CNA said the state’s current statute of limitations works well but that eliminating it might cause more harm than good. 

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“For the last 20 years, the Archdiocese of Boston (which represents two-thirds of the Catholics in Massachusetts) has been caring both financially and pastorally for all victims who come forward. We do not turn people away and have not shut the door, rather focusing on healing and taking responsibility for the harm they have experienced,” said Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the archdiocese, in an email message, with emphasis in the original. 

“We worked with the Legislature in 2014 to amend the law which allows us to continue the work with victims and their families in this manner. After nine years, the law has proven to be beneficial to the victims,” Donilon said. “The legislative changes currently proposed and under consideration would jeopardize our ability to continue to work with victims and their families in a manner that they deserve.” 

The statute of limitations bill’s primary sponsor is state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, who has also filed a bill that would eliminate the time limit for filing criminal charges in Massachusetts in cases of sexual assault or rape of a person under 18. 

The Joint Committee on the Judiciary has not taken action on the bills yet. 

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