Governor Patrick Signs Statute of Limitations Law
Survivors Moving Forward to File Civil Actions
June 26, 2014, BOSTON, MA – Today Governor Deval Patrick officially signed into law a bill that will finally provide civil relief for victims of child sexual abuse who were previously time-barred under the old law from filing charges against their alleged abusers. After several months of behind-the-scenes negotiations among legislators, legal experts, child advocates and the MA Catholic Archdioceses, the bill passed unanimously in both the House and Senate late last week. The bill, which included an emergency provision, immediately went into effect this afternoon upon the Governor's signing. Given the favorable support by the legislature last week, however, many survivors already began to explore their new legal options.
The law now provides the opportunity for anyone up to the age of 53 to file civil charges against their alleged abuser and/or against an institution and/or supervisor. Previously a victim only had up to 3 years past their 18th birthday to file civil charges or until 3 years after they came to understand the harm caused by the abuse. Under the new law, that limited "discovery period" is extended to 7 years. The new law, however, is not retroactive for institutions and their supervisors. This means that survivors who believe their past abuse was due to the actions or inactions of an organization and/or a supervisor of that organization, may not file civil charges if they were time-barred under the old law. Only abuse by institutions and supervisors that occurs after the new law goes into effect would be subject to the age 53 provision.
"We are fully aware of the bill's limitations regarding survivors age 53 or older, as well as the inability of some to file civil charges against institutions which may have been complicit in allowing child sexual abuse to occur under their watch,", said Jetta Bernier, director of MassKids, a child advocacy organization that has been involved in the SOL reform fight for several years. "Negotiators were faced with an all-or-nothing choice and so chose to do what was currently possible for the greatest numbers of survivors. We could no longer tolerate how the previous law protected abusers and disregarded the rights of survivors and the right of children to be protected from becoming future victims," she said. The group is committed to fight for additional reforms and prevention policies in the next legislative session.
Rosanne Sliney, a survivor of child sexual abuse, who was time-barred under the old law from suing the uncle who abused her from age 5 to 14, expressed the sentiment of many abuse victims. "With this long overdue move, we have finally succeeded in wresting power away from abusers who were largely protected under the old law. That power now resides with victims who can finally seek justice in the courts in order to heal and to shield more children from sexual abuse."
Marci Hamilton, constitutional law scholar and the nation's foremost legal expert on Statute of Limitations stated: "This law is a good development for Massachusetts survivors. The retroactive age extension to age 53 is innovative and worthy of other states' attention." However, she raised concerns that the law would still shield the four Massachusetts Dioceses of Boston, Fall River, Springfield and Worcester from potential new suits brought against them by some victims of clergy sexual abuse. "The failure to include institutions under the retroactive provision shows that Catholic bishops' continue to exert their power in an effort to avoid justice. Still, the retroactive extension of the discovery rule to 7 years beyond discovery for all defendants is an improvement over existing law."
Bills to reform civil and criminal SOLs were introduced in numerous states in 2014, including California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. MassKids and other advocates succeeded in 2009 in extending the state's criminal SOL. Before then a victim had only up to 15 years past their 16th birthday or by age 31 to file criminal charges against their abuser. Now they have until age 43.