A lawyer who helped lead an $85 million child sexual abuse settlement against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston before revealing that he had been a victim of child molestation urged state lawmakers to raise the statute of limitations on sexual abuse lawsuits.
The measure, heard Tuesday by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, would give victims until age 55 to file civil claims against their alleged attackers. Under current Massachusetts law, most victims have only until age 21 to bring civil lawsuits, according to backers of the legislation.
‘‘It’s not going to be complete justice; there will never be complete justice,’’ lawyer Eric MacLeish said before meeting with lawmakers.
‘‘But this bill will be so helpful for so many people, and I would like to think that it could have been helpful to me,’’ he said, adding that he would argue for the bill from both the standpoint of a lawyer and an abuse victim.
MacLeish brought a picture of himself at age 9 with classmates at a boarding school in England, where he said he was sexually abused by a teacher.
MacLeish was among the lawyers in the landmark 2003 clergy abuse case that led to compensation for hundreds of people who said they were abused by priests as children. Yet during that time, he did not reveal his own experiences.
‘‘Even though I knew I was a tough advocate for people who had been sexually abused. . . . the most terrifying thing for me, that I never spoke about, was going back and confronting the people who had molested me,’’ he said.
After the settlement with the church, MacLeish suffered post-traumatic stress brought on by years of dealing with the stories of others who had been sexually abused, he said. He was haunted in particular by the case of one client who had been raped as a 9-year-old boy.
MacLeish gave up his law practice, got divorced and suffered flashbacks, nausea, and insomnia.
An exception to current Massachusetts law allows people over the age of 21 to sue their alleged abusers if a claim is filed within three years of the time they first realize that they had been harmed by past abuse.
MacLeish said that in his case, he had never repressed memories of abuse, even recalling details as vivid as the wallpaper in the room where he had been molested.
‘‘I never forgot it, but I was never able to deal with it,’’ he said. ‘‘I was afraid to go there. I thought that if I did, I would become unraveled. My elixir, my medication, was representing abuse victims and trying to save people.’’
Mitchell Garabedian, another Boston lawyer who advocates for abuse victims, said raising the age would recognize the difficulty many people have confronting the trauma until well into adulthood.
‘‘Even if a person realizes they were abused and it caused them problems, they still might not have the coping mechanism to call someone up and say, ‘I’ll have to do something about this.’ ’’ Garabedian said. ‘‘I have clients in their 80s who have been carrying abuse around for 75 years.’’
Those skeptical of raising the statute of limitations say the passage of time, scarcity of witnesses, and sometimes vague recollections of events can make it difficult for the accused to get a fair hearing.