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Mass. House advances child sex abuse lawsuit

BOSTON — House leaders sprung a proposal on Wednesday to extend the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits brought by victims of alleged child sexual abuse, reengaging with a controversial topic that has been debated for years on Beacon Hill but has eluded compromise.

The House gave initial approval to a bill (H 4126) recommended last week by the Committee on the Judiciary, co-chaired by Belmont Sen. William Brownsberger who has taken the lead on this issue in the Senate in recent years.

The committee does not currently have a House chair, but Rep. John Lawn, of Watertown, has taken the lead on the issue for House leadership.

“We think we’ve crafted a bill that we can put forward that people feel comfortable with that gives people who’ve been abused a chance to face their accusers in a timeline that they’re able to. It’s complicated,” Lawn said.

Lawn said he became involved with the issue after he was approached by a constituent from Waltham who had been repeatedly raped, and impregnated, by her godfather over the span of a decade from the time she was 5 years old until she turned 15.

Unlike many other crime victims, Lawn said those who are sexually abused as children may need years to understand and come to terms with the abuse, but sometimes when that happens it’s too late to pursue legal action. That was the case with his constituent.

The bill would extend the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits to be brought against the perpetrator of abuse or any person or institution who failed to prevent the abuse from three years after the alleged victim turns 18 to 35 years, or until the victim turns 53. The new statute of limitations would be applied retroactively to cases against the alleged perpetrator of the abuse, but not for defendants who may have “negligently supervised” the abuser.

The bill would also extend from three years to seven years the limit for a civil lawsuit to be brought against either class of defendant from the time the victim “discovered or reasonably should have discovered that an emotional or psychological injury or condition was caused” by the sexual abuse.

Both the House and Senate advanced bills late in 2012 to a conference committee, but lawmakers were unable to reach a compromise before the legislative session ended. Until today, the bill had not moved in their branch during the 2013-2014 session.

Several House lawmakers said Wednesday that their renewed hope in the prospects for the bill stems, in part, from a “change of attitude” from the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston toward the legislation.

The Roman Catholic Church has fought similar legislative efforts in other states around the country, arguing that an extension or elimination of the statute of limitations could expose the church to enormous liabilities that force the institution to defend itself against claims that might be decades old instead of focusing on how to protect children.

Lawn said after the 2012 defeat he went “back to the drawing board,” and has worked with lawyers and stakeholders, including Massachusetts bishops, to refine the proposal that he is “hopeful” will pass this year.

“With this crime and as more states around the country and around the world deal with this issue it’s major progress and I think it’s a good step. Because this is such a complicated crime, it needs to be looked at differently,” Lawn said.

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