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TIME TO BE HEARD

End the statute of limitations on sex abuse, victims say

Photographs of victims could be seen on the State House steps yesterday during a rally and hearing on the statute of limitations in child abuse cases. Photographs of victims could be seen on the State House steps yesterday during a rally and hearing on the statute of limitations in child abuse cases. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Martine Powers
Globe Staff / September 28, 2011

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Seated at the center of a hushed hearing room in the State House, the two athletes could not have looked more different: Al Chesley, a 6-foot-3-inch former linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Heather Conner, a petite former professional tennis player in a light pink blouse.

But in front of members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, the two shared the same story: As children, they say, they were abused by a trusted adult. As adults, they remained silent for decades. They both spoke out for the first time when they were two years shy of their 50th birthday.

And because of existing laws that place a statute of limitations on sex abuse cases, they say, they cannot bring their alleged abusers to justice.

“I’m a good example of why the statute of limitations is so limiting and hurtful,’’ said Conner, who talked about the tennis coach, star Bob Hewitt, who flattered her with declarations of adoration. “I was 48 years old when I first sought help.’’

“If I could have spoken up sooner,’’ said Chesley, 53, his voice breaking, “I would have.’’

Attorneys, elected officials, and victims of childhood sexual abuse testified yesterday at the State House, urging the judiciary committee to support a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases.

About 50 supporters of the legislation gathered earlier in the day at a rally in front of the State House, surrounded by black-and-white photographs of abused children, shouting over duck boats and sirens to share their experiences and support for the bill.

In the afternoon, state senators and representatives listened to testimony regarding various legislation related to sexual offenders.

Conner first went public with her accusations against Hewitt, a celebrated doubles player honored in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, in an Aug. 28 article in the Globe. When Conner was 14 years old, the star player offered to coach her for free. Soon after, she said, he began having sex with her.

Conner said the supportive responses she received after sharing her story buoyed her to get more involved with speaking out against child abuse.

“Listening and sitting through all those testimonies - it was stressful,’’ Conner, who lives in West Newbury, said after the hearing. “But the representatives seemed to be very receptive.’’

Chesley, 53, said he was abused by a police officer in the Washington, D.C., area as a teenager.

“I like to think I’m a pretty tough guy,’’ Chesley said. “But it breaks me down still.’’

In attendance at the rally were elected officials, including Representative Ronald Mariano of Quincy, and Representative Shaunna O’Connell of Taunton.

“We should have the ability to prosecute sex abuse cases,’’ O’Connell said, “whether they happened two days ago or 15 years ago.’’

The debate in the state about the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases has been going on for years, fueled by high-profile cases involving Catholic priests. In 2006, the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases in Massachusetts was extended, so that a teen who told someone about being abused could have as long as 27 years to seek criminal charges. But, under the current law, that means a victim has to come forward by age 43.

Jeff Dion, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association, said the statute of limitations on abuse often deprives victims of their opportunity for a day in court - just when they have begun to come to terms with the abuse.

“The statute of limitations hurts no one but victims and helps no one but perpetrators,’’ Dion said.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented hundreds of people abused by Catholic priests, said he believes it is time that the legislation move out of the judiciary committee and onto the House floor. “The government has a responsibility to protect children and help sex abuse victims gain access to the courts,’’ he said.

No one at yesterday’s hearing testified against extending the statute of limitations. According to the youth advocacy organization Massachusetts Citizens for Children, 31 states have eliminated the statute for certain sex offenses involving children.

Afterward, Representatives Sheila Harrington and Daniel B. Winslow, both Republicans, said they plan to cosponsor the bill.

“If you looked around at everyone’s faces,’’ said Harrington referring to elected officials, “it was fairly evident that the testimony was compelling.’’

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.