Clergy Sex-Abuse Victims Rally

By Dan Ring
The Republican
January 11, 2006

BOSTON - Victims of clergy sexual abuse and activists yesterday rallied on Beacon Hill for legislation that would end the $20,000 cap on liability for churches and other nonprofit groups in certain civil lawsuits.

In speeches, proponents also called for approval of a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations in criminal and civil cases involving sex abuse of children.

"Accountability is the first step toward preventing future abuse," Peter C. Pollard of Hatfield, coordinator in Western Massachusetts for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told a crowd at the Statehouse.

"With accountability, the silence can be broken. With accountability, healing can begin for everyone involved," Pollard said.

Rep. Ronald Mariano, D-Quincy, is a lead sponsor of the bills to lift the $20,000 limit on liability for churches and nonprofit groups. The bill would abolish the $20,000 limit only for cases of sexual abuse of a minor.

Massachusetts is one of several states with caps on the amount of money nonprofits can be forced to pay for negligence.

Supporters of Mariano's legislation said the caps restrict financial awards in lawsuits and can make it difficult for victims to hire lawyers.

In a phone interview, Edward F. Saunders Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said he would oppose the bill to end the financial limit on liability for churches and other nonprofits found to be negligent.

Saunders said he was not aware of the cap being used to refuse settlements or limit settlements for victims.

Saunders said he would not oppose a bill to end the statute of limitations in criminal cases involving sexual abuse of children. But Saunders said that for practical reasons, he is against eliminating the statute of limitations in civil cases involving sex abuse. Memories can fade, and records could be lost in such civil cases, he said.

The fate of the bills is unclear. They are winning increased support this year among legislators, something that proponents said is a positive sign.

A total of 72 legislators have signed on to support eliminating the statute of limitations for sex abuse crimes, and more than 60 legislators are backing the bill to abolish the $20,000 ceiling on liability for churches and other nonprofit groups.

Proponents from Western Massachusetts said they are hopeful yesterday's press conference and rally could build momentum.

"These reasonable changes in the law ... will allow me to seek a measure of justice," said Paul M. Herrick, 50, who grew up in Greenfield and now lives in Springfield, Vt.

Herrick, who said he is running for a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives this year, has a lawsuit pending against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, alleging he was abused by five priests from about 1969 to 1973.

Kathy J. Picard, 43, of Ludlow, gave a speech calling for eliminating the statute of limitations in both criminal and civil cases involving sexual abuse of children. Picard said she was abused as a child, but not by a priest.

"I didn't disclose my abuse until adulthood," she said. "I wish now that I came forward as a child, but I was scared. I didn't know better."

The statute of limitations for criminal sex abuse ranges from six to 15 years after the crime was committed, according to the Coalition to Reform Sex Abuse Laws in Massachusetts.

Under current law, civil lawsuits must be filed within three years of the act, three years from age 18, or three years from the time the victim discovered an emotional or psychological injury was caused by the act, the coalition said.


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