By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- House leaders sprung a proposal on Wednesday to extend the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits brought by victims of alleged child sexual abuse, re-engaging with a controversial topic that has been debated for years on Beacon Hill but has eluded compromise.
The House gave initial approval to a bill (H 4126) recommended last week by the Committee on the Judiciary, co-chaired by Belmont Sen. William Brownsberger, who has taken the lead on this issue in the Senate in recent years.
The committee does not currently have a House chair, but Rep. John Lawn, of Watertown, has taken the lead on the issue for House leadership.
"We think we've crafted a bill that we can put forward that people feel comfortable with that gives people who've been abused a chance to face their accusers in a timeline that they're able to. It's complicated," Lawn told the News Service.
Lawn said he became involved with the issue after he was approached by a constituent from Waltham who had been repeatedly raped, and impregnated, by her godfather over the span of a decade from the time she was 5 until she turned 15.
Unlike many other crime victims, Lawn said those who are sexually abused as children may need years to understand and come to terms with the abuse, but sometimes when that happens, it's too late to pursue legal action. That was the case with his constituent.
The bill would extend the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits to be brought against the perpetrator of abuse, or any person or institution who failed to prevent the abuse, from three years after the alleged victim turns 18 to 35, or until the victim turns 53. The new statute of limitations would be applied retroactively to cases against the alleged perpetrator of the abuse, but not for defendants who may have "negligently supervised" the abuser.
The bill would also extend from three years to seven years the limit for a civil lawsuit to be brought against either class of defendant from the time the victim "discovered or reasonably should have discovered that an emotional or psychological injury or condition was caused" by the sexual abuse.
Both the House and Senate advanced bills late in 2012 to a conference committee, but lawmakers were unable to reach a compromise before the legislative session ended. Until today, the bill had not moved in their branch during the 2013-2014 session.
Much of the controversy in the 2012 debate centered around proposed changes to the legal standard of negligence and a House proposal to open up a one-year window for a victim of any age to file a civil claim of abuse, regardless of the person's age. The new bill does not address either issue.
Several House lawmakers said Wednesday their renewed hope in the prospects for the bill stems, in part, from a "change of attitude" from the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston toward the legislation.
The Roman Catholic Church has fought similar legislative efforts in other states around the country, arguing that an extension or elimination of the statute of limitations could expose the church to enormous liabilities that force the institution to defend itself against claims that might be decades old instead of focusing on how to protect children.
Lawn said after the 2012 defeat he went "back to the drawing board," and has worked with lawyers and stakeholders, including Massachusetts bishops, to refine the proposal that he is "hopeful" will pass this year.
"With this crime and as more states around the country and around the world deal with this issue, it's major progress and I think it's a good step. Because this is such a complicated crime, it needs to be looked at differently," Lawn said.
House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, has filed versions of the statute of limitations bill in the past before turning the reins over to Lawn, and feels the timing this year might be right.
"I will say there has been a change of attitude from the Church and a sense of cooperation, which is good to see," Mariano said.
Pope Francis, elected in March 2013, recently declared a "zero-tolerance" approach to dealing with sexual abuse within the church as he announced plans to meet at the Vatican as soon as this month with eight victims of clergy abuse. Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the head of a commission set up by the Pope to study ways of dealing with sexual abuse cases in the Catholic church, is helping to organize the meeting. O'Malley last year met with dozens of Beacon Hill lawmakers at the Union Club in Boston during a gathering that church officials said was intended to reopen communications.