Many priests' cases may be too
old to be prosecuted
By Maureen Boyle, Brockton, MA Enterprise - Feb. 24, 2002
As the number of people alleging that former priest James
Porter had molested them reached more than 60 in Massachusetts,
prosecutors in Bristol County in 1992 were faced with a daunting
How many of the cases - some dating back 30 years - could
be substantiated and how many of those could be tried?
"That was probably the oldest case the office handled,"
Bristol County Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Brackett
Eventually, Porter would be charged with molesting 28 children
- cases that fell within the statute of limitations at the
time - and, in a plea bargain, was sentenced to 18 to 20 years
Today, prosecutors throughout the state are facing that same
issue as the Archdiocese of Boston sends packet after packet
of sketchy information about cases involving former and current
priests accused of, but never charged with, sexual misconduct.
While the Catholic Church is naming priests and providing
vague details to district attorneys, prosecutors say many
of the cases - if substantiated - may be too old to bring
to court, or may not even be crimes under the law as it existed
at the time.
"The majority of these allegations are well outside
the statute of limitations," Plymouth County District
Attorney Timothy Cruz said. "The majority of the stuff
we are getting is well beyond 15 or 20 years old."
Norfolk County District Attorney William Keating said the
information that authorities have gotten so far is too sketchy
to take action.
"We are at an initial stage," Keating said. "We
have bare-bones information at this point."
So far, the names of 80 active and former priests suspected
of abuse in the past 40 years have been turned over to prosecutors
by Cardinal Bernard Law.
That step was taken after defrocked priest John Geoghan was
convicted of fondling a 10-year-old boy in Waltham amid claims
that he fondled or raped more than 130 people since 1995.
Geoghan is now serving a 9- to 10-year state prison term.
Also, so far this year, three area priests have been accused
- but not charged - with sexual misconduct and suspended from
While claims that men of the cloth may have engaged in sexual
misconduct is disturbing, the behavior may not be illegal
- depending on when it occurred, what happened and with whom.
There is a six-year statute of limitation on cases involving
inappropriate touching - such as grabbing the genitals.
If the touching incident occurred prior to 1986 and was considered
"consensual," it isn't a crime, even if the victim
was a 13-year-old.
The law has since been changed, making it indecent assault
and battery - generally inappropriate touching without sexual
penetration - and a crime if the victim is under age 16, even
if the boy or girl consents.
"Cases that are generally in the area of 30 years old
are not within the statute," Cape and Islands First Assistant
District Attorney Michael O'Keefe said. "From a legal
perspective, there is simply no prosecution."
Rape cases involving child victims can be a bit easier to
prosecute, thanks to changes in the law, but it can still
be tricky, several said.
In 1985, the statute of limitations in child rape cases was
increased from six to 10 years.
Two years later, the law changed, noting the legal time clock
would start ticking until the child either first reported
the allegation or turned 16 - whichever came first.
In 1996, the statute of limitations was increased to 15 years.
That essentially extended the statute for any crimes that
fell within the earlier law. The law also was changed, essentially
stopping the legal time clock if the suspect left the state.
"If you moved to Ohio for six years, it is not running,"
Dana Curhan, an appellate attorney, said. "Theoretically,
you could move to New Hampshire and live there for 50 years
and come back and are accused, the statute hasn't even run
Checking dates and counting years is a key element in prosecuting
even the strongest of child rape cases, several said.
"It takes a little bit of time and research. You are
going back, seeing if the person had left the Commonwealth,
seeing when the allegations were made, what was the date.
Often these children were young, uncertain about dates, that
is a big challenge right there," said Bristol County
Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Brackett, head of the
child abuse and sex assault investigative unit.
The passage of time can also pose a hurdle for defendants.
"How are you going to come up with an alibi for something
that happened 25 years ago?" Curhan said. "It is
probably harder to defend because a lot of times you can't
find people who can corroborate your side of the story and
you usually have a very strong victim who said, 'This is what
he did to me.'"
O'Keefe said allegations of misconduct do not always lead
to criminal charges, and noted the same may hold true with
the information provided to prosecutors by the Archdiocese
of Boston about priests whose names surfaced in sexual misconduct
"They are not charged with anything and in most cases,
it is obvious to me that ... they will not be," O'Keefe
said of the cases. "These are lists of people who were
complained about at some remote period of time. Instead of
the victims choosing to come to police or prosecutors, they
chose to make a deal to settle their complaint privately.
The prosecutor's job is to see justice done ... If people
choose for whatever reasons not to bring a particular matter
to light, then that is a decision that they have to live with."