Child welfare advocates are calling on the head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to back legislation that would extend the statute of limitations in Massachusetts on cases brought by victims of childhood sexual abuse.
The open letter to Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley came days after he announced a major effort by Pope Francis to explore ways the church can protect children from abuse and to care for victims. The new Vatican commission marks the Catholic Church’s first comprehensive effort to address a scandal that exploded in 2002 in Boston and become a worldwide crisis.
The bills in Massachusetts are the latest efforts by advocates to get the state Legislature to allow more time for victims of childhood sexual abuse to pursue their alleged abusers in state court. One proposal would allow abuse victims to file a lawsuit in civil court up to the age of 55. Current law generally caps the filing age at 21. A separate bill would open a one-year window for those older than 55 to file claims. In criminal cases, accusers have until age 43 to file charges. The civil and criminal rules apply to all abuse cases and are not limited to church-related incidents.
A spokesman Sunday declined to disclose the archdiocese’s position on the proposals. But when the Legislature considered a more sweeping measure last year, the archdiocese’s policy arm, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, warned that it could open church organizations to additional liability in decades-old cases and harm their charitable efforts.
On Sunday, a group of advocates led by Massachusetts Citizens for Children sent an open letter to O’Malley, arguing that the current legislation aligns with church principles, as stated by the Catholic Conference.
“Protecting the ‘dignity of the human person and the sanctity of [all] human lives,’ the expressed goals of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, apply to the quest for justice that victims of sexual abuse and advocates for children have been on for so long,” the advocates wrote.
By supporting the legislation, the advocates added, “you can help us help them and prevent more children from being abused.”
Lawmakers have until the end of the legislative session in July 2014 to send a bill to the governor’s desk for final passage.
Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, said in a statement that the church continues to seek forgiveness from anyone harmed by “these reprehensible acts” and remains vigilant in its efforts to protect children. “We indemnify and provide services for any person impacted by the sexual abuse of minors in the Church, regardless of when the abuse took place,” Donilon said. “We have been humbled to witness the strength and courage of many survivors through their inspirational accounts of faith and healing.”
During consideration of similar legislation last year, opponents said they feared it could expose dioceses and affiliated groups to additional liability, and potentially undermine the church’s already shaky finances. That previous bill initially called for eliminating the statute of limitations entirely for child sex abuse cases, and for eliminating a $20,000 cap on civil damages for nonprofits.
James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Catholic Conference, said in May 2012 that the measure would “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.’’
Driscoll did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.
The archdiocese has waived the statute of limitations and the charitable immunity cap in many cases it has settled out of court. The church has spent the last 10 years trying to address a massive sexual abuse scandal that in Boston alone has involved more than 1,100 victims and cost the archdiocese about $150 million in damages from civil lawsuits.
Jetta Bernier, executive director of Citizens For Children, known also as MassKids, said in an interview that opponents’ concerns about the financial harm to the church’s charitable programs are misplaced. She said the majority of victims of childhood sexual abuse were not targeted by priests but rather other authority figures includingteachers, coaches, and relatives.
And, Bernier said, the church “should base its actions on moral reasonings, not on economic ones.”
Lisa Wangsness, Stephanie Ebbert, and Milton J. Valencia of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.