A Massachusetts child sex abuse protection bill being discussed on Beacon Hill is getting considerable push back from the Archdiocese of Boston. Similar bills being presented around the nation have been strongly opposed by the Catholic Church.
The Massachusetts bill titled Comprehensive Child Sexual Prevention Act 2011 (House Bill 496) proposes the drastic repeal of the statute of limitations on civil and criminal sex abuse suits—meaning victims at any age and any time period can file suit against their alleged abusers. Lawmakers are discussing ways to modify the reformative bill, one scenario being that victims may have a two-year window to bring old cases to court even if their statute of limitation has passed.
Currently in Massachusetts, a victim can file a criminal suit up to 27 years after the alleged abuse occurred; in a civil suit a victim has only three years after he or she understands the act to have been abuse.
Another provision in the bill is the eradication of the charitable immunity doctrine. Since 1971, Massachusetts holds that charitable institutions and non-for-profits, such as the Catholic Church, are not liable under tort law and cannot be sued for more $20,000 per plaintiff in civil court.
“The Church been able to use the charitable immunity to carve out private deals with victims,” says Jetta Bernier, Executive Director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children. “That’s how they were able to make these confidential agreements over the years.”
For decades, the Boston Archdiocese has been confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct towards young Church members. In 2002 alone, 542 victims came forward accusing multiple Church clergy of childhood abuse. In 2004 the Boston Globe reported that the Archdiocese of Boston spent $85 million dollars in settlements; the Church had to sell property to Jesuit college Boston College to help absorb the costs.
Attorney Carmen Durso, who has been working on the bill for the past ten years with Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, said the proposed legislation is not about money, it’s about preventing future victims and giving justice to the abuse survivors. For example, a statute of limitations does not take into consideration when a victim is personally ready to confront the abuse and his/her abuser. According to a survey Durso conducted of his clients, most victims do not come forward until they are in their forties.
When asked to comment about the Church’s stance on the bill, Jim Driscoll, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference addressed the issue of charitable immunity. “House Bill 469 is a complex piece of legislation which seeks to retroactively alter rules governing claims against charities and other non-profit institutions, that if passed by the Massachusetts Legislature 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,” he said in a statement. “It does not propose to change similar laws already protecting public institutions such as municipalities and public schools and in doing so, places a greater burden on nonprofits and their employees, volunteers and trustees.”
Durso is doubtful that the charitable immunity provision will end up in the bill’s final draft, but said he will not stop pushing for it until it is part of Massachusetts law. He and Mariano have attempted several times to get the bill through the judiciary committee, he said, but were blocked every time. Although the Church’s political and social clout has waned over the years since the sex abuse allegations, the Church is still a stronghold in Boston—a city with deep Roman Catholic roots.
Catholic Bishops have been opposing similar legislation showing up in State capitols across the country, according to Marci A. Hamilton, Chair of Public Law at Cardozo School of Law. “They [the Church] have fought extensions and elimination of the statute of limitations, as well as the window legislation that is likely to be considered in Mass. They argue that they are concerned about the money, but in fact, they fight much more over releasing the secrets still in their secret archives than they do over compensating the victims in these cases,” she said.
New York assemblywoman Margaret Markey has made the renewal of statute of limitation laws a central part of her politics. “The laws have been protecting abusers for many years,” she said. “As a society we have to protect children, not pedophiles.” The biggest opponents of her efforts to change the statutes are a conservative Judaic organization Agudath, and the Catholic Church. She has tried many times to pass new legislation but her peers are “intimated by religious institutions,” she said.
“We believe that House Bill 469 should not be passed in its current form,” Jim Driscoll said. “The Church welcomes the opportunity to have a voice in this legislation.”
*Interviewees for this article spoke to CNN wires*