January 06, 2006

Bills target sex abuse

Telegram & Gazette


A number of area legislators are joining with survivors of clergy sexual abuse to reform state laws that they believe make it easier for sexual perpetrators to avoid being held accountable.

Groups that support making these reforms will hold an “advocacy day” starting at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Statehouse to push for further support of their bills. The impetus for the reform comes from the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has gripped the Roman Catholic Church — but legislation will affect all religious groups and other non-religious organizations in the state.

Susan Renehan of Southbridge, who said she was sexually abused by a priest as a youngster in another state and is co-director of the statewide Coalition to Reform Sex Abuse Laws in Massachusetts, said she is pleased with the response of legislators.

“I’m optimistic, and that we have gotten this far shows the change in attitudes,” she said.

She said she was abused from ages 11 to 14 by a priest at her Catholic parish where she grew up in New Jersey. Ms. Renehan said she did not begin to deal with the trauma until she was 30 and she did not reveal the abuse until after her parents died.

“I never wanted them to know what happened. I was filled with shame and guilt although I was a child when it happened,” she said.

More than 60 legislators, including several from Central Massachusetts, are co-sponsors of a bill to restructure the statute of limitations on sexual crimes against minors.

Also, legislators this year will be asked to drop the so-called charitable immunity cap on churches and other groups and nonprofit organizations that currently limits judgments to victims of sexual abuse to $20,000. They are considering laws to make religious institutions give a public accounting of their finances.

State Sen. Edward M. Augustus, D-Worcester, is among the lawmakers pushing for a change in the charitable immunity cap on court judgments in sexual abuse cases. On changing the laws surrounding the statute of limitations, Mr. Augustus said he understands the issue of trying to get records and testimony from older cases but he said many victims are reluctant to disclose the abuse immediately and they can be coerced into not reporting abuse until the statute had expired.

State Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, said he supports any measures to make children safe. He said part of his thinking of child safety came about in the last 10 years because Holly Piirainen and Molly A. Bish, young girls abducted and murdered, lived in his district. He said as a Catholic he supports the 96 percent of “good and decent priests” but will support legislation to protect children from the 4 percent of priests who “would sully the priesthood.”

Edward F. Saunders, director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy and lobbying arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, said they see the legislation “as an attack on the Catholic Church that is very different today than when the problems occurred.” Mr. Saunders said the Catholic Church has acknowledged the problems and has worked to change the way it handles allegations of abuse and has put policies and programs in place to deal with these issues.

He added that opposition to this legislation is coming not only from the Catholic Church, which he sees as the target of the proposed changes, but from a wide variety of religious faiths and denominations that also would be affected by any changes in the law.

The Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents the state’s Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches, opposes a bill that would increase the financial reporting provisions for religious organizations.

Mr. Saunders said many religious groups, and not just Catholics, oppose the financial disclosure legislation. “This is crossing the line between separation of church and state,” he said.

Changes to the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases can be problematic on old allegations because records are lost over time, memories fade and it can be difficult to get reliable testimony, he said. The conference also opposes any change in the charitable immunity cap on judgments in civil suits.

Area co-sponsors of a bill to alter the statute of limitations on sexual abuse allegations include state Rep. Mark J. Carron, D-Southbridge, state Rep. Lewis G. Evangelidis, R-Holden, state Rep. John P. Fresolo, D-Worcester, state Rep. Robert P. Spellane, D-Worcester, Sen. Brewer and state Sen. Richard T. Moore, D-Uxbridge.

Other dioceses in Massachusetts waived the cap to make larger settlements with victims of clergy sexual abuse but the Diocese of Worcester held to the cap and settlements in recent lawsuits have been below the cap.

State Rep. Vincent A. Pedone, D-Worcester, said he “tends to support” changing the charitable immunity cap and is still looking at laws that would change the financial disclosure laws. He said one bill calls for requiring religious group to have an outside audit. “The intent may be good but there may be unintended consequences,” he said.

Posted by kshaw at January 6, 2006 08:10 AM