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Spotlight Report

Bills aim for stricter abuse laws

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 7/25/2003

 Related stories
7/24/2003
AG releases report on abuse

 Attorney general's report
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A day after Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's blistering report on the Archdiocese of Boston's handling of sexual abuse by clergy, state Senator Cheryl A. Jacques said yesterday that she is proposing a package of bills to address some of the problems identified in the report.

The package, a combination of new proposals and older ones that are being filed again with new urgency, would eliminate the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil sex abuse cases, extend rape shield law protections to civil cases, and increase the penalties for the failure to report suspected abuse cases by so-called ''mandatory reporters'' such as social workers, teachers, and clergy.

One bill in the package would also require, as numerous other states do, that suspected abuse be reported not just to the state Department of Social Services but to local law enforcement as well.

''For all of us who read the AG's report, it was both staggering and shocking to the conscience,'' said Jacques, a Needham Democrat who prosecuted child rape cases when she worked as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County. ''Arguably, given some of the laws we have passed already, the same thing couldn't happen again, but we still have more that we need to do.''

Reilly on Wednesday called the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston ''the greatest tragedy to befall children -- ever'' in Massachusetts when he released the results of his 16-month grand jury investigation of local church leaders. While finding that no church officials could be prosecuted under state laws in existence when the abuse occurred, Reilly's report found that there was an ''institutional acceptance of abuse'' within the archdiocese.

The measures in the Jacques package were praised by advocates for victims of child sexual abuse as a necessary response to the attorney general's report, although one key provision, eliminating the statute of limitations in child sexual assault cases, does not have Reilly's support.

Several of the proposed changes are part of a measure filed last year called the Bill of Rights for Victims of Rape and Sexual Assault, which passed the state Senate but was never acted upon by the House. Among other provisions, the bill would have extended the state's rape shield law to civil court, barring evidence of a victim's past sexual conduct from civil as well as criminal cases.

That bill has been refiled, Jacques said, with the added provision of eliminating the statute of limitations in child sexual assault cases. Currently, criminal cases must be brought within 15 years of the alleged victim's 16th birthday or the first report to law enforcement, whichever comes first. Civil suits must be filed within three years of the alleged abuse.

William Gately, cocoordinator of the victim advocacy group SNAP New England, called the elimination of the statute of limitations an important measure.

''Often victims need a significant amount of time to come forward after the abuse is committed, given the depth of trauma involved,'' he said.

Supporters, however, predicted that the move to eliminate the statute of limitations would face significant opposition from some legal and civil liberties groups, especially defense lawyers, who fought a similar measure in 1996. Because memories fade, witnesses die, and evidence is often lost, opponents have argued that it is often next to impossible for defendants in very old cases to receive a fair trial.

Reilly said this week that he did not support legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations in cases of rape and sexual abuse, despite evidence that some victims do not report such abuse for years.

In an interview Wednesday, Reilly said he strongly supports another proposed piece of legislation that would make violation of the mandatory reporting law subject to a penalty of up to 2 1/2 years in jail and a maximum fine of $25,000. Currently, the law carries a $1,000 fine and no jail time.Meanwhile yesterday, Governor Mitt Romney said that church leaders responsible for protecting abusive priests should be jailed and vowed to have his own legal counsel conduct a review to see whether there was any way to bring criminal indictments. ''People need to go to jail for what happened here,'' Romney said.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 7/25/2003.
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