Kelley Victim Testifies on Beacon Hill

By Julie Mehegan
Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise State House Bureau [Boston MA]
Downloaded October 10, 2003

BOSTON -- Local victims of clergy sexual abuse on Thursday pleaded with lawmakers to lift a three-year statute of limitations on civil lawsuits and make other changes that would give sexual abuse victims more freedom to sue for damages.

In testimony before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, Heather Mackey Godin, 27, and her father, Tewksbury Police Chief John Mackey, said changes to the law would be unlikely to help Godin in her quest to hold the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester responsible for the abuse she suffered at the hands of former priest Robert Kelley at St. Cecilia's Church in Leominster.

Lifting the statute of limitations and a $20,000 cap on damages for charitable organizations would help others who hope to confront their "enablers" in civil court, they said.

"Although adoption of this legislation would most likely not help my crusade against the Worcester diocese, I hope you will support it for all the other victims who have been subjected to the evils that lurk within the Catholic Church," said Godin, who last week saw Kelley sentenced to five to seven years in state prison for raping her and an Ashburnham woman when they were children. Both have spoken publicly about the abuse.

It was the second trip to the State House this week for Godin and her father to lobby for passage of the bills. Mackey pledged to spend his retirement -- he will leave the force in three months -- working to hold the church accountable for his daughter's rape.

"Reject the massive lobbying efforts of the Catholic Church. They do not deserve your support or your loyalty," Mackey urged committee members.

"The voices of young abused children of the past cry for your help, and they deserve no less," he told lawmakers.

The Legislature is considering several bills pertaining to civil sexual-abuse lawsuits. In addition to eliminating the statute of limitations and the $20,000 charitable-immunity limit, another bill would authorize parents to sue for damages when their children are abused.

Also testifying at Thursday's hearing was Gary Bergeron, 41, of Lowell, who sued the Archdiocese of Boston over his alleged abuse by the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham in the 1970s. Several lawyers who represent abuse victims and a half dozen lawmakers also testified in favor of the bills.

The Mackeys first brought action against the Worcester diocese more than a decade ago, Mackey said, when his daughter was a teenager. But the family backed off because Godin was psychologically fragile and unprepared for a trial, he said.

When Godin brought a second suit, she confronted the statute of limitations and notice from the diocese that it would sue for triple its legal costs if she were unsuccessful in overriding it.

Godin said she was forced to withdraw.

"If it were not for the statute-of-limitations issue, we would have proceeded to trial. I am confident that the diocese would have been held accountable for their actions in a court of law," Mackey said.

Bergeron, one of several dozen plaintiffs in a civil suit against the Boston archdiocese who allege they were abused by Birmingham, has not been forced to confront the civil statute of limitations in his action against the church. In a global settlement reached with more than 500 plaintiffs, the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to waive the statute of limitations and the charitable-immunity limit. An arbitrator will determine the amount of settlement each plaintiff will receive.

Bergeron said the groundbreaking settlement reached with victims now will have little impact on someone who is abused five years from now, and for that reason the statute of limitations should be eliminated.

"Judge Sweeney said the doors of the court are open for people, but when you're dealing with the statute of limitations and charitable immunity the doors are most certainly not open," said Bergeron, referring to presiding Judge Constance Sweeney, who is overseeing the cases involving the Boston archdiocese.

The committee took no action Thursday, and it is unclear what the fate of the legislation will be. Neither of the chairmen -- Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat, and Sen. Robert Creedon, a Brockton Democrat -- has returned phone calls seeking comment on the legislation.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.