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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 sexual assault.

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 at mcnamara@globe.com.

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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org