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Deadlines on child sexual abuse complaints may be extended

Victims could get two-year window

Victims of child sexual abuse who missed deadlines for filing civil claims against their abusers may get a two-year window during which they could bring old cases to court, under one legislative scenario under discussion on Beacon Hill.

If victims could prove the abuse occurred, the maximum they could collect from any nonprofit organization held responsible would be capped at $20,000, the existing limit.

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Those potential provisions are being discussed as part of a move by lawmakers to scale back a proposal, opposed by the Catholic Church, that would have made sweeping changes to the legal remedies available to people sexually abused as children.

The original legislation, which even some proponents consider too far-reaching, would eliminate the statute of limitations entirely for criminal and civil cases involving child sexual abuse, letting people come forward for an unlimited amount of time.

It also would get rid of the $20,000 limit on civil damages for nonprofit organizations, a cap established in the early 1970s to protect charities from being wiped out by lawsuits, in cases related to child sexual abuse.

The state’s Roman Catholic bishops are lobbying against the original bill, which they fear could expose dioceses and church agencies to additional liability in decades-old cases, potentially undermining the church’s shaky finances and compromising its charitable mission.

“We have developed comprehensive pastoral outreach programs for survivors and their families, remained vigilant in reporting claims, worked closely with law enforcement, and are dedicated to resolving cases in a just and responsible manner,’’ said James F. Driscoll, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s four Roman Catholic dioceses.

The church’s opposition to the original legislation places it in a politically uncomfortable position. The church has spent the last 10 years trying to address a massive sexual abuse scandal that in Boston alone has involved some 1,150 victims and cost the archdiocese about $150 million in damages.

Driscoll said in a statement the bill as originally drafted “will have an immediate and harmful impact on the ability of all nonprofits, not just the Catholic Church, to serve thousands of people who rely on these organizations.’’

Advocates for victims said they are not surprised the church opposes the legislation.

“I just worry there is more effort to heal the cash flow than there is to heal the victims, and it is disappointing,’’ said Paul Kellen of Medford, a founding member of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition.

Proponents of the legislation said the church’s lobbying efforts have been relatively low-key, and there is little evidence the church’s position is driving modifications of the bill.

Those familiar with the State House discussions said the proposal to eliminate the charitable immunity cap also alarmed nonprofit hospitals, which fear eliminating the cap in sexual abuse cases could become a pathway to eliminating it for other kinds of civil claims, including medical malpractice.

Lynn Nicholas, president of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, said in a statement the association has not taken a position on the bill but recognized that lawmakers face “the challenge of crafting legislation that both vigilantly protects children and remains consistent with the intent and purpose of charitable liability protections to safeguard the important and good work that charities perform.’’

The Massachusetts Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs declined to comment on the legislation. A Boy Scouts of America spokesman said the group does not take a position on state legislative matters.

House majority leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat who filed the original bill, said in a brief interview Wednesday that it was premature to discuss details of any discussions because he was only beginning to meet with interested parties and review options. He said he and other proponents of the bill were looking at what other states have done, and that he was not sure about the prospects of a bill coming forward this year.

Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, said that although her group will continue pushing for the charitable immunity cap to be raised or eliminated for sexual abuse cases, the most pressing priority is to offer victims the chance to bring a claim forward.

A window for filing old cases, she said, would do that.

“Most victims who were abused in the past are not looking for money, they’re looking for legitimacy . . . they’re looking for justice, they’re looking for healing,’’ she said.

California, Delaware, and Hawaii have passed legislation temporarily suspending their statutes of limitation in child sexual abuse claims, said Jeffrey Dion of the National Center for Victims of Crime. Florida, Delaware, Maine, and Alabama eliminated civil statutes of limitations entirely, he said.

Massachusetts is one of only three states that cap liability for charities held liable for abuse, said Carmen Durso, a lawyer who has represented many victims sexually abused as children.

“Charitable immunity is under attack every day, and eventually we are going to get rid of it,’’ he said.

“If we get the statute of limitations reform this session, we will certainly come back and talk about charitable immunity.’’

The current statute of limitations for civil claims is three years from the time an adult victim realizes, or reasonably should have realized, that an act of abuse caused him or her to suffer harm.

The Legislature in 2006 extended the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse from 31 to 43.

Ending the criminal statute of limitations would only affect future cases because retroactive changes to criminal statutes of limitations are unconstitutional.

It is not clear how the legislation would affect the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, particularly the Archdiocese of Boston, which has waived the statute of limitations and the charitable immunity cap in many cases it has settled out of court.

“The impact of these cases is not going to be on the Catholic Church; it is going to be on other organizations and individuals who are abusing people,’’ Durso said.

Catholic bishops across the country have been lobbying against similar bills.

“They are often the only organization in opposition to these bills,’’ he said. “And the church uniformly opposes any extension of the statute of limitations because the only way the church can win is if these cases are never brought.’’

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the conference has no position on such bills because they are local matters.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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