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Kevin Cullen

Let’s give justice time

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / March 20, 2012
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If timing is everything, Kathy Picard’s was lousy.

She was 32 years old when she accused a relative of sexually abusing her when she was a girl. Police in Western Massachusetts told her the 15-year statute of limitations that kicked in when she turned 16 had expired the year before.

Picard threw herself into the campaign to remove the statute of limitations. In 2006, after prosecutors complained that they couldn’t make cases against Catholic priests who had abused minors years before, the Massachusetts Legislature voted to extend the statute of limitations to 27 years after a victim turns 16. It was a compromise, but an improvement.

When the new law kicked in, Picard was 44, again one year too late to seek charges.

“It’s arbitrary and wrong,’’ she says. “When it comes to abusing kids, there shouldn’t be any statute of limitations.’’

More than 100 of 160 House members have already endorsed House Bill 469, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for the sexual abuse of minors and make it impossible for predators to escape prosecution and accountability by hiding behind the calendar.

Whether they get a chance to vote on this is another question. On Beacon Hill, pure power often trumps pure democracy. The House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, says he opposes the bill but insists that’s not why it won’t be reported out this week on time. There’s just a backlog, he says.

While acknowledging that 41 states have eliminated the criminal statute of limitations on the sexual abuse of children, O’Flaherty told me he is not convinced it’s the right thing to do.

“I’m not saying those other states have pandered’’ to public opinion, O’Flaherty said. “I’m just saying it’s very difficult to oppose bills like this.’’

It should be. There is a general consensus that there should be no statute of limitations for murder, and the law reflects that. There is a growing consensus that there should be no arbitrary hiding place for those who murder children’s souls by sexually abusing them. That consensus does not include Gene O’Flaherty.

“Statutes of limitations have a purpose,’’ said O’Flaherty.

He said they ensure that evidence and memories are fresh. But they do nothing to ensure justice when the evidence is that many kids who are abused suffer in silence for years.

Lifting the statute of limitations on the civil side is even more contentious. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference opposes the bill, saying the current law is fair to both accusers and the accused. Representative Garrett Bradley calls that opposition outrageous.

“Opposition to this is about avoiding more lawsuits, not doing the morally responsible thing,’’ said Bradley. “As a lawyer, I understand the importance of statutes of limitation. But for a lot of victims, this is the only route to closure.’’

The reality is the vast majority of abuse doesn’t involve priests. It involves predators inside or close to a family. It’s that insularity that protects predators and silences victims with stigma. But as that stigma melts away, so will laws that protect predators.

John Lawn, a freshman rep from Watertown, is supporting a constituent from Waltham, Rosanne Sliney, 48, who has been barred from seeking justice against a relative who she says abused her from age 5 to 14.

“She has a letter from this guy, admitting the abuse,’’ Lawn said. “But she can’t do anything because it’s beyond the statute. That guy is walking around like nothing happened, and that’s not right.’’

Lawn believes that if the bill gets to the floor, it will pass. “We’re just starting to understand these crimes,’’ he said. “I think it’s like murder, what it does to kids. . . . It shouldn’t be treated like other crimes.’’

And it should get to the floor for a vote.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.

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