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Deadline on abuse cases at issue

SJC to hear appeal on three-year limit

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 2/3/2003

The Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear an appeal in a clergy sexual molestation case this week that could erode the legal basis for many of the 500 or more claims pending against the Archdiocese of Boston.

The lawsuit was filed in 1998 by a woman who said she was repeatedly molested by the Rev. Gerard E. Creighton in 1958, when she was a 16- and 17-year-old high school student preparing to become a nun.

At issue is whether the state's statute of limitations for civil claims made by people abused as minors expired before the woman filed her suit. The statute sets a three-year limit for such claims, but has exceptions that allow many suits to be brought much later.

Attorneys who are following the Creighton case say that if the state's highest court decides that the statute of limitations has expired, it could limit future lawsuits against the church and prompt lawyers for many plaintiffs to settle their claims out of court.

On the other hand, if the SJC affirms an Appeals Court ruling and clears the way for a jury trial, it might encourage even more people with claims decades old to come forward and file lawsuits.

''If the court makes a big pronouncement on the statute of limitations, it could have a big impact on these cases,'' said Michael Avery, a Suffolk Law School professor and a specialist on rules of evidence.

Whatever the court decides after hearing arguments this Thursday, it will be addressing one of the more difficult questions in civil child sex abuse cases: Exactly when does the clock on the state's three-year statute of limitations start ticking?

Under state law, a person sexually assaulted as a minor has until three years after turning 18 to file a lawsuit. But the law also clears the way for cases brought long after that by saying that the clock on the three-year statute does not start until the victim either ''discovered or reasonably should have discovered'' that the alleged sexual molestation caused an emotional or psychological injury.

Many of the 500 pending claims against the archdiocese have been made by people who say they were abused decades ago, but who also claim they only recently realized that the molestation caused subsequent harm.

In the lawsuit against Creighton, the alleged victim, who is not named in court papers, said she began to suffer emotional harm immediately after the alleged abuse began in 1958, and continued to suffer for decades.

But David Dwork, the woman's attorney, said she did not make a connection between the alleged abuse and the emotional damage until 1995, when she confronted Creighton, who was on an extended leave of absence, in a Cape Cod furniture store that he operated. She filed her lawsuit almost three years later, in 1998. Creighton has denied the woman's allegations, although the Boston Archdiocese paid her $150,000 in 1998 to settle her separate claims against the church.

A superior court judge dismissed the lawsuit against Creighton in 2000, saying the statute of limitations had expired. In his ruling, Judge James F. McHugh wrote that the woman, by arguing that she did not make the connection between the alleged abuse and her emotional injury until she stopped blaming herself and started blaming Creighton, ''seeks to slice the matter too finely.''

The woman prevailed in the state Appeals Court. But then the high court agreed to hear Creighton's appeal -- and with more than 500 other claims pending, took the appeal on an expedited basis.

The Appeals Court decision was based on a 2001 SJC ruling -- in a lawsuit not involving clergy -- that said the question of whether the statute of limitations had expired in the case of a man sexually assaulted 30 years earlier should have been left to a jury.

But court records show there are significant factual differences between the abuse case that led to the 2001 decision and the case against Creighton. One difference is that the woman in the Creighton case, who is no longer a nun, became a teacher and was likely to know that sexual abuse of children can cause lasting psychological harm. In fact, teachers in Massachusetts and many other states are required to report child sexual abuse to authorities.

For this reason and others, Creighton has said it's clear the statute of limitations expired before the woman filed her suit, and that a judge should be allowed to make that determination without presenting the question to a jury.

Some attorneys believe that, because the SJC so recently issued its opinion in the case of the man molested 30 years ago, it's unlikely to reverse itself or narrow the time period in which child abuse victims may file suits. But others believe the court wouldn't have agreed to hear Creighton's appeal if it were not at least reconsidering its previous ruling.

Dwork, the attorney for the woman, said he will argue before the high court that a jury be allowed to determine whether the woman's suit falls within the statute of limitations.

But Marielise Kelly, one of the attorneys representing Creighton, said that if the woman prevails in her attempt to bring the question to a jury, the SJC will have said that ''for all practical purposes, there is no statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.''

Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 2/3/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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