January 9, 2023
The Bay State has fallen behind neighboring states, which have opened up new legal avenues for victims to sue the institutions that harbored their abusers decades ago.
A recent change in Maine law has given people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s a chance to seek justice, at long last, for the sex abuse they endured as children.
The measure retroactively eliminated the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits in these cases, allowing victims to seek restitution from the churches and summer camps and Boy Scout troops that had failed them so grievously decades ago.
Robert Dupuis, 73, is among those who have filed suit since the law changed.
In the early 1960s, he says, a priest at St. Joseph Church in the central Maine community of Old Town periodically summoned him to a closet he called his “office” and pulled Dupuis’s buttocks into his crotch and fondled his genitals over clothing. The abuse may have contributed to his years-long struggles with alcoholism, he claims. And it left him with crippling trust issues.
“I never really had any friendships,” he recently told Globe reporter Mike Damiano. “Even my wife and I never became friends until I went to recovery.”
Maine is one of several states that has opened up new legal avenues for child sex abuse victims in recent years — fulfilling a solemn obligation to the wronged and sending a powerful message to institutions entrusted with the care of children.
Lawmakers in Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, and Utah have taken action. In New England, the Vermont and New Hampshire legislatures have stepped up, too. But here in Massachusetts, where the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal burst into view two decades ago and inspired a worldwide reckoning, we have fallen behind.
It’s time to catch up.
The state Legislature’s last significant reform came in 2014, when lawmakers — hearing from advocates for child sex abuse victims on one side and the Catholic Church on the other — settled on a compromise. They would keep the statute of limitations for civil suits in place but they would extend it — allowing victims to file suit up until age 53, instead of age 21.
In a key concession to the church, victims could sue perpetrators in past cases of abuse — but not the people or institutions that supervised them. (In future abuse cases, supervisors and institutions could be sued.)
It was progress. But with research showing that many victims struggle to speak about abuse until much later in life, the age 53 cutoff strikes some advocates as insufficient. Even an insult.
Mitchell Garabedian, a longtime lawyer for abuse victims, tells the editorial board that the 2014 law was “a slap in the face” for those who still didn’t qualify to sue.
“It’s time for Massachusetts to wake up,” he says, “and recognize what’s going on throughout the country.”
Child USAdvocacy, a national group that tracks and lobbies for child protection legislation, gives the Massachusetts law a “D” grade.
It reserves an “A” for laws like those in Maine and Vermont that have wiped away the statute of limitations for future cases and given past victims of child abuse unlimited time to pursue claims against perpetrators, supervisors, and institutions.
Kathryn Robb, executive director of the group, acknowledges that this sort of leeway is unusual in the American legal system.
“But we are not talking about slip-and-fall cases, we’re not talking about breach-of-contract cases,” she says. “Let’s be real. We’re talking about rape, sodomy, and sexual assault of our children.”
And for too many institutions where abuse has occurred, it takes a steep financial penalty to bring adequate attention to their responsibility for stemming what can only be called a crisis. In the United States, about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse.
The criminal prosecution of child sex abuse is governed by different laws. There is no statute of limitations in Massachusetts. But the evidentiary bar is higher if someone makes an allegation decades after an alleged assault. And that may be appropriate, with the liberty of the accused at stake. Lawmakers should examine the issue carefully before making any changes.
There is no justification, though, for the sharp restrictions on civil suits here. They are arbitrary and out of step with neighboring states. Those who can credibly claim they have been violated deserve a day in court — even if it takes decades to get there.
The worst kinds of child abuse have been labeled “soul murder.” And there must be adequate redress.