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Mass. bishops back expanded time limits for abuse claims

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The four Massachusetts bishops have thrown their support behind a new bill that would lengthen the allotted time sex abuse victims have to bring a civil suit. The bishops see it as an "issue of justice," according to Peter McNulty, associate director for policy and research for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the bishops' public policy arm.

"This is a fairness issue," he said.

The bill would extend the statute of limitations in civil child sex abuse cases from three to 35 years, which takes effect after the victim turns 18.

In addition, the law would broaden the "discovery rule." Currently, the law allows individuals three years to bring a suit after they discover the harm caused by sexual abuse; the new law would extend the timeframe to seven years. The bishops also endorse this change, McNulty said.

"We support that being extended as well," he said. "Theoretically someone could be 90 and still bring a claim under the discovery rule."

The expanded statute of limitations would apply retroactively only to abuse perpetrators but would apply going forward not only to individual abusers but also to the institutions they worked or volunteered for.

The Massachusetts House and Senate both approved the bill, which was sent to Gov. Deval Patrick's desk on June 23. Patrick has 10 days to sign or veto the bill before it would automatically become the law.

Leaders from both state government houses issued statements lauding the bill on June 19.

Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said the changes are essential for protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable.

"Often, it takes time for victims to truly come to terms with their abuse, especially if the incident happened when they were children, and we should extend the window of opportunity that allows them to call for justice," she said.

Sen. Will Brownsberger (D-Belmont) added, "I do believe that the changes we have made will help protect children in the future."

In a separate statement, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said, "I'm proud to join my colleagues in passing this bill that protects victims of sexual violence and better holds institutions accountable."

In a June 19 statement, Kathryn Robb -- a board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Children and a member of the Survivors Network of those abused by Priests (SNAP) -- thanked "the many determined victims and advocates who have made this progress possible."

She added that she hopes state legislators will continue advance the legal rights of sex abuse victims.

"We hope Massachusetts lawmakers will do more to enable victims to also expose those who conceal child sex crimes. That would give employers more incentive to act promptly, transparently and responsibly when abuse reports arise and to take stronger steps to prevent abuse and cover up in the future," she said.

In a statement released by the MCC, the bishops said they recognize the suffering of sex abuse victims and remain committed to assuring the safety of children entrusted to their care.

"For well over a decade, we have been utilizing comprehensive pastoral outreach programs for survivors and their families, have been vigilant in reporting claims, have worked closely with law enforcement and continue to be dedicated to resolving cases in a just and responsible manner," they said.

The bishops noted that currently any credible allegation of abuse results in the immediate removal the accused. In recent years, they have screened tens of thousands of employees and volunteers. They have implemented extensive education and child safety programs that involve hundreds of thousands of children and adults. They have also submitted to annual independent audits to ensure compliance with national standards.

"Our support for this legislation is consistent with our continued and steadfast commitment to provide those services for as long as they are needed by the victims and their families," they said. "As a society, we must work together responsibly and collaboratively to root out child abuse from our communities, homes, schools, parishes and elsewhere."

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