After years of resistance and public criticism, state legislative leaders agreed Tuesday to let the full House of Representatives vote on an increasingly popular proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations on prosecuting child sexual abuse crimes.
The measure as proposed would essentially eliminate the deadlines that victims have in filing complaints of child sex abuse, a limit that had been set to protect alleged predators from false claims based on foggy memories.
Under criminal law, prosecutions of certain cases are limited after 27 years, and they are limited to as few as three years in some civil court cases, according to advocates of the new proposal.
But state Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee and essentially a gatekeeper in deciding which proposals merit a full House vote, remained skeptical of the proposal, despite allowing the vote. In a letter to colleagues Tuesday, he cautioned against basing any support for the measure on public opinion.
The Chelsea Democrat also took issue with what he called attacks on and criticism of legislators who oppose a proposal.
“Our way of making law is becoming more and more reactionary and increasingly done by maligning individual members and forcing issues to the floor based on emotion,’’ he wrote to the full House. “The rationale for questioning legislation and productive discussions to reach compromise is being replaced with attack tactics, public humiliation and no support from anywhere as the nature of our process.’’
He said he would endure such attacks as chairman of the committee, but that, “doing this over the years, the toll is personally and politically more difficult now than ever.’’ O’Flaherty would not comment beyond the letter.
The Judiciary Committee’s agreement Tuesday to send the measure for a floor vote - and O’Flaherty’s letter - came after a Globe columnist chronicled the struggles of victims of child abuse and their efforts to eliminate the statute of limitations.
When interviewed for the column last week, O’Flaherty said the measure would probably not be released from his committee because of a backlog of other proposals. He also said he could not support the bill, saying that statutes of limitations have a proper purpose in the judicial system and that his decision would not pander to public opinion.
But O’Flaherty said in his letter to colleagues Tuesday that he had already begun polling Judiciary Committee members last week. His chief of staff, Alexis Tkachuk, said that she began an informal poll of committee members March 8, after hearing that some supported the bill’s passage. Outside interest groups also reported that more than 100 of the House’s 160 members endorsed the measure.
Tkachuk said news stories last week continued to spotlight the issue, and so a formal poll of Judiciary Committee members was conducted beginning Friday.
The Judiciary Committee gave the measure a favorable vote Tuesday, sending it to the full House. Tkachuk would not disclose the committee vote. She said O’Flaherty would not support the measure as drafted.
The Senate does not have its own version of the bill.
But advocates for victims of sexual abuse welcomed the movement, saying they have worked to change the laws since the clergy sexual abuse scandal rocked the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston 10 years ago. In 2006, the statute of limitations for criminal cases was extended from 15 years to 27 years, but only under certain restrictions. Proposals to further change the laws have languished.
Advocates said the limitations should be eliminated for both criminal and civil cases, saying an explosion of recent examples, many not involving the Catholic Church, demonstrates that abuses can go unnoticed for years. The scandals involving cover-ups within the Penn State football program and the Boston Red Sox clubhouse are two examples, said Carmen Durso, a Boston lawyer and a representative of the Coalition to Reform Sex Abuse Laws.
He said Tuesday that his group in no way meant to be critical of O’Flaherty, saying the representative has previously been receptive, but that “there has been constant effort to get this bill passed.’’
“The timing is right,’’ he said. “There is nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come.’’