Time is up for statute
By Eileen McNamara, Boston Globe Columnist
September 29, 2004
It is past time to eliminate the statute of limitations on
Could there be a more Pyrrhic victory than the indictment
this week of Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, former head of the Roman
Catholic Diocese of Springfield, in the rape of two children?
No sooner had a grand jury indicted the first bishop in the
United States to face criminal charges of child sexual abuse
than the district attorney declared the crimes too old to
prosecute. It was neither a welcome nor an arbitrary decision
on the part of Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett.
The law tied his hands.
The outcome in the Dupre case was no surprise to the frustrated
victims or to their exasperated advocates. It mirrors scores
of cases across the country in which the survivors of clergy
sexual abuse have been denied access to the criminal justice
system because time was on the side of their abusers.
"Lawmakers should realize that the statute of limitations
has become a refuge for dangerous men," David Clohessy,
national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those
Abused by Priests, said of the Dupre decision. "It's
a legal loophole leading to horrific but avoidable pain for
many innocent children."
That is not the way that lawmakers, now led in the Massachusetts
House by soon-to-be speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, a North End
Democrat and longtime member of the defense bar, see things.
It took public outrage at the extent of the clergy sexual
abuse scandal to force the Legislature in 2002 to extend the
statute of limitations to 15 years from the time a crime is
reported to authorities. Former state senator Cheryl Jacques,
a Democrat from Needham, had hoped to eliminate the time limits,
but in a Legislature dominated by defense lawyers, a halfway
measure was the best the former prosecutor could do.
The Dupre decision should be motivation enough for like-minded
legislators to try again.
Why should a sexual assault victim's access to the courthouse
depend on when the crime was committed? The argument made
Monday by Dupre's lawyer, Michael O. Jennings, that memories
fade and witnesses relocate or die, could be said about murder
cases, as well. Yet most police departments have "cold
case squads" to investigate suspicious deaths. There
is no statute of limitations on murder because we agree as
a culture that no killer should ever think that time alone
will insulate him from the consequences of his crime.
Why should it be any different for those who leave a child
breathing, but kill his spirit? Why shouldn't prosecutors
have an opportunity to make their case on the merits of the
evidence, whatever its age? Why should Dupre enjoy an early
retirement as a priest in good standing in an undisclosed
location without ever having to face a jury of his peers?
If the past is prologue, look for the Springfield prelate
and his generous pension to make a soft landing in Rome.
"It's a tough question that we get a lot from victims,"
said Stephen Bilafer, chief of staff for Attorney General
Thomas F. Reilly, who opposes the elimination of the statute
of limitations in sexual assault cases.
"These are very difficult cases to make under any circumstances,
but especially after an extended passage of time," Bilafer
said. "A case like this one cries out for the ability
to prosecute, but the fact is that the ability to do justice
does diminish over time."
Reilly has lobbied instead for a measure that would stiffen
penalties for those who are required by law to report suspected
cases of child abuse but who fail to do so. Clergymen have
been mandated reporters since the scandal broke in 2002. The
legislation would raise from $1,000 to $25,000 the potential
fine for keeping silent in the face of evil.
It's not enough. Child molesters and their protectors need
to know that time is not on their side and that justice is
on the side of their victims.
Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached