The Massachusetts Legislature is on the verge of finalizing a bill that will give alleged child sexual abuse victims an additional 32 years to file civil lawsuits, a move one specialist said will open the door to thousands of new cases.
The bill would extend the statute of limitations for filing suits against alleged perpetrators and, in future cases, the people or institution supervising them. Under the legislation, the victims would be able to file suits up to age 53, instead of the current limit of age 21.
The Senate passed the measure Thursday, after it was approved by the House Wednesday.
Lawmakers expect to send a bill to Governor Deval Patrick’s desk soon, after a few more procedural votes, said Senator William N. Brownsberger, the Senate cochairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
“We’re very glad we were able to get this done,” said Brownsberger. “It is going to protect children in the future. It really is.”
Carmen L. Durso, a lawyer for sexual abuse victims and a vocal supporter of the bill, also hailed its passage. “It will open the doors of the courthouse to thousands, literally thousands of people who have otherwise been excluded from being able to file suits,” Durso said by phone. “This will give them the opportunity to name their perpetrators and do what almost all of them want to do, which is make sure their perpetrators can’t get to other victims.”
Rosanne Sliney, 50, of Burlington, whose suit against her uncle was dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds, said the legislation gives her hope she may get justice.
“My lawyer can contact the judge, say that these are new laws, we need to move forward to trial,” she said. “It will definitely give me a chance at justice and a fair fight against someone who destroyed me in my life.”
The landmark bill contains some important distinctions. In cases involving past abuse, for example, the provision extending the statute of limitations from age 21 to 53 would allow alleged victims to sue only the perpetrators, but not the alleged abuser’s supervisors and the institution that they worked or volunteered for.
The institutions would, however, be subject to the new rule and could be sued in cases of abuse that occur after the law passes. Institutions potentially exposed to lawsuits include churches, schools, youth centers, and other organizations.
In cases of repressed memory, the bill would give adults seven years to file claims against alleged perpetrators and their supervisors once they realize they were abused as children, an increase from the current three-year threshold.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the bill a “very big step forward” but expressed disappointment with the provision that shields institutions from some retroactive claims.
Clohessy said his group is “saddened but not surprised that Catholic officials lobbied so hard to continue evading responsibility for child-molesting clerics.”
The Catholic Church, in particular, has been rocked by a sexual abuse crisis that exploded in Boston in 2002 and has led to dioceses in Massachusetts and elsewhere paying hundreds of millions of dollars in civil claims, straining budgets and forcing school and parish closings.
Asked to comment on the legislation, a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston released a statement from the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s four Catholic bishops, that said the group supports the legislation.
“We, the bishops of the four dioceses of Massachusetts, recognize the suffering of survivors who have experienced sexual abuse and remain committed to assuring the safety of children entrusted to our care,” the statement said.
“For well over a decade, we have been utilizing comprehensive pastoral outreach programs for survivors and their families, have been vigilant in reporting claims, have worked closely with law enforcement, and continue to be dedicated to resolving cases in a just and responsible manner.”
The Catholic Conference added that the church has taken a number of steps to address the crisis, including background screening for tens of thousands of employees and volunteers, as well as the immediate removal of any cleric or other person credibly accused of abuse.
Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney for sexual abuse victims who is best known for filing a number of lawsuits against the Catholic Church, could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
BishopAccountability.org, an advocacy group for victims, echoed the sentiments of other advocates who wanted a stronger bill, even while praising the version that was passed.
In a statement, the group said: “The bill is far from perfect. It keeps the courthouse doors slammed shut to most of the thousands of child sexual abuse victims now age 53 or older. And it will do almost nothing to expose and hold accountable those supervisors and employers who already have been negligent, careless, or deceptive in managing offenders.”
But Durso, the lawyer for abuse victims, said that a compromise was better than nothing.
“The perfect bill would be no statute of limitations at all,” he said. “And sometimes you can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good and the useful.”
Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a group that pushed for the changes, agreed with Durso’s assessment.
“We are fully aware that this is not the perfect bill, but we could not let the status quo continue,” she said.
Senate and House leaders released statements of support for the measure.
“The changes in this bill are essential for protecting the victims of sexual abuse and holding the perpetrators accountable for their actions,” Senate President Therese Murray said.
“I’m proud to join my colleagues in passing this bill that protects victims of sexual violence and better holds institutions accountable,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said.
Patrick’s office declined to comment.