The House passed a bill Wednesday to extend the statute of limitations for child victims of sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits, angering advocates who had hoped that such time limits would be eliminated.
The measure would limit to 27 years the deadline to claim to have been sexually abused as a child, effectively, expanding a victim’s potential to file claims until he or she is 43 years old.
That is a scaled-back version of the original bill, which would have eliminated the time limit on civil claims of childhood sexual abuse.
Though the measure would only affect future abuse cases, it would also offer victims who have been previously shut out by statutes of limitations one year in which to file retroactive claims. However, the bill would prevent a business or entity from being blamed for such abuse, unless gross negligence can be proven.
One lawyer said such a threshold would make it difficult to bring such claims.
“In a bill that’s supposed to help the people who haven’t been able to bring actions previously because of the statute of limitations,” said Carmen Durso, a Boston lawyer who has represented people sexually abused as children. “We should not be making it harder for them to bring a claim than it is for anybody else.”
The measure’s original sponsor, however, said the compromise was necessary to make the bill palatable to some members who had misgivings. He said he was satisfied with the revision and that the “gross negligence” threshold mirrors language in bills passed by other states.
“We thought it might be a way to build a consensus around the bill; not everyone loves this bill,” said House majority leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat. “Some people think it opens up cases that are largely unprovable and it puts innocent people in jeopardy of being wrongfully accused.’’
Further complicating matters, the measure that passed the House Wednesday night was rushed through on a voice vote, and the final language was not yet publicly available. An aide to Mariano said that the only final changes were technical in nature and that the overall provisions of the legislation remained intact.
The issue has been circulating for years, since the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal exploded in Massachusetts and victims lodged their claims. Many alleged victims were adults who had long since missed the deadlines for reporting such abuse. As a result, prosecutors called for broadening the time frame during which charges could be brought. The Legislature did so in 2006, extending the statute of limitations for bringing criminal charges from 15 to 27 years. But the time frame for filing civil complaints was not extended.
The Massachusetts Catholic Conference — the public policy office of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Dioceses of Fall River, Worcester, and Springfield — raised concerns about the sudden movement of a bill, even before it passed Wednesday night, without a roll call vote.
“This bill also appears to unfairly target churches and other nonprofit institutions, as well as the good work they do for the public sector, but leaving intact similar laws protecting public governmental institutions such as municipalities and schools,” said James F. Driscoll, executive director of the conference.
Durso pointed to the sexual abuse scandal that erupted this year at Penn State University’s football program.
“When people are acting presumably out of concern because of Penn State and everything we’ve been hearing in the news, it makes absolutely no sense to give additional protections to the entities that are involved,” said Durso.
Under the changes to the bill, an alleged victim filing suit under the one-year retroactive claim deadline would also have to file a certificate of merit with a lawyer attesting that a lawsuit is reasonable.
He or she would have to report findings from a licensed mental health professional that there is a reasonable basis for the abuse charge. If the court finds accusations malicious or baseless, plaintiffs would be liable for defendants’ legal fees.
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