September 9, 2023
It often takes survivors decades before they have the courage to come forward. That’s why the current statute of limitations for sex abuse lawsuits should be lifted.
Criminal sexual assault charges against Theodore McCarrick were dismissed last month after a Massachusetts judge ruled that the 93-year-old defrocked cardinal was incompetent to stand trial. But Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer who represented the plaintiff in that case, is still pursuing civil lawsuits related to McCarrick filed in New York and New Jersey.
He is able to do so because those states lifted statute of limitation restrictions on such cases for a set window of time. The victim — who in the 1970s was a 16-year-old boy when the alleged assault took place in Wellesley — could not do that in Massachusetts. That’s because under current state law, victims can file suit within 35 years of the alleged abuse, with the time limit tolled until a minor child reaches 18 — and this victim was 53 or older when he came forward to report the alleged sexual abuse. “Instead of being progressive, Massachusetts legislators are shamefully regressive when it comes to amending the childhood civil sexual abuse statute of limitations,” Garabedian told the Globe editorial board. “If laws are meant to protect the public and welfare of society, then Massachusetts legislators must act responsibly and protect Massachusetts citizenry.”
A bill filed by state Senator Joan Lovely of Salem would do that by entirely eliminating the statute of limitations on civil child sexual abuse cases. But to make that happen, lawmakers must overlook the objections of the Catholic Church, which opposes the measure.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that was perpetrated by a relative, Lovely knows this insidious evil is not exclusive to any single institution. However, she believes that the magnitude of the church scandal prompted lawmakers to take some action to make it easier for victims to seek restitution from a trusted institution that had so betrayed them. Absent the immediacy of that scandal, she said it’s harder to get lawmakers to focus on the issue. Why? “When you raise the issue of someone sexually abusing and raping a child, people shut down,” she told the editorial board. “They don’t want to think it exists in their world, but we know that it does.”
It certainly does. This is an area where underreporting is likely since many victims wait to report or never report. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the United States experience child sexual abuse. And someone who is known and trusted by the child or child’s family members perpetrates 91 percent of child sexual abuse.
It often takes survivors till their 50s before “they have the courage to come forward,” Lovely said, which is why the current age cutoff is problematic.
As this editorial board has previously pointed out, neighboring states have already eliminated the statute of limitations for civil lawsuit in these cases. Vermont did it in 2019, followed by Maine in 2021. But Massachusetts, which was ground zero for the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church more than 20 years ago, lags behind.
When the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases was expanded by the Legislature in 2014, the church was heavily involved in negotiating the compromise. At the time, Catholic leaders issued a statement that said they “recognize the suffering of survivors who have experienced sexual abuse and remain committed to assuring the safety of children entrusted to our care.”
Asked to comment on the bill proposed by Lovely, the Archdiocese of Boston issued this statement:
“For the last 20 years, the Archdiocese of Boston (which represents 2/3 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. 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 9 years, the law has proven to be beneficial to the victims. The legislative changes currently proposed and under consideration would jeopardize our ability to continue to do so and would make it difficult to sustain the many works of mercy the Church is committed to through social justice and support for the neediest.”
That is disappointing. For sure, the clergy sexual abuse scandal has cost the church a lot — in reputation and in legal payouts. A spokesperson for the Boston Archdiocese put the figure at $250 million since 2002. So it’s understandable why church leaders would not be anxious to open the door for more disbursements.
Yet as Garabedian said, “On a weekly basis, I hear from survivors well into their 80s who want to try to heal through the legal system — but the legal system denies them that right.”
Victims deserve an avenue for legal redress — one built upon the understanding that it can take a very long time for someone who was so cruelly preyed upon as a child to have the strength to confront that abuse as an adult.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.