Supreme Judicial Court upholds law that retroactively expanded time limit on sex abuse cases

The Supreme Judicial Court upheld a 2014 state law, supported by survivors of sexual abuse, that extended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse lawsuits.

Previously, plaintiffs had three years to file civil lawsuits against perpetrators. The law extended that to 35 years, and applied it retroactively.

The judges considered whether that law violated a defendant’s right to fairly gather evidence and witnesses given that length of time. They unanimously ruled on Wednesday that, although that was an issue, the compelling interests of the law were more relevant.

The expanded statute of limitations “appears to be tied directly to the compelling legislative purpose underlying the act, and in particular, the apparent recognition that in many cases, victims of child abuse are not able to appreciate the extent or the cause of harm they experience as a result of sexual abuse perpetrated on them for many years after the abuse has ended,” Justice Margot Botsford wrote for the court.

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The case dealt with Rosanne Sliney, who said she was sexually abused by her uncle Domenic Previte from 1968, when she was five years old, up until 1977. Sliney struggled with mental health issues for years, the court writes, and she eventually told family members of the abuse in 1988.

Previte wrote her a letter of apology, and, under pressure from her family, Sliney signed a document releasing him from all claims in exchange for $26,500, the court writes.

In 2011, though, Sliney began to recall that Previte had forced her to engage in sexual acts with others. She filed a civil lawsuit in 2012, but a Superior Court judge dismissed the complaint on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.

That changed with the 2014 law, and Sliney filed another lawsuit. Previte challenged the case, arguing, among other things, that the extended statute of limitations violates a “reasonableness’’ test.

The case now goes back to the superior court for further judgment.

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