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Statute of Limitations Targeted in Abuse Cases

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page A11

BOSTON, Feb. 16 -- The day after the sentencing of one of the most notorious figures in this region's three-year-old clergy abuse crisis, lawmakers and victims advocates said Wednesday they are building momentum to repeal statutes of limitations that have prevented other abusers from facing lawsuits and prosecution.

Under Massachusetts law, rape cases must be brought within 15 years of the incident being reported to law enforcement or, in the case of a child, 15 years of the accuser's 16th birthday, whichever comes first.

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Other sex crimes have shorter statutes of limitations.

As a result, few priests implicated in the ongoing scandal in the Roman Catholic Church have faced charges, leading to widespread frustration among abuse victims.

"We need to allow victims to deal with their victimization and come forward at a time that's appropriate to them," state Rep. Ronald Mariano (D) said at the statehouse in a news conference with abuse victims and a bipartisan group of legislators.

On Tuesday, Paul R. Shanley was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison for raping an altar boy in the 1980s.

The case could be tried only because Shanley left Massachusetts in the early 1990s, stopping the countdown to the statute's expiration.

Mariano is sponsoring three bills, which have attracted 46 co-sponsors.

Two would eliminate the civil and criminal statutes of limitations. If passed, the change in the criminal law would not apply retroactively, meaning priests currently protected from prosecution would remain so.

A third bill would remove the $20,000 limit on liability awards when charitable organizations, such as churches, are found to have facilitated sex crimes. The Boston archdiocese far exceeded that cap in making payments for its landmark 2003 settlement with more than 500 victims.

A similar series of bills filed in 2002 never emerged from the state House Judiciary Committee, though those initiatives had fewer co-sponsors, legislators said.

The support of 81 members of the House and 21 members of the Senate would be needed for passage.

At least four states -- California, Connecticut, Illinois and Missouri -- have scaled back criminal and civil statutes of limitations on sex crimes since 2002, said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Similar initiatives have failed, or are still being considered in many other states.

"Massachusetts tends to set the pace on child protection in general and clergy abuse in particular, so this could have a very powerful impact across the country," Clohessy said.

Corey Welford, a spokesman for Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who has stressed the difficulty of prosecuting decades-old abuse cases, said Reilly "has been meeting with victims' groups and prosecutors, and is keeping an open mind on this issue."

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