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Testimony to Massachusetts Judiciary Committee Regarding Statute of Limitations and Charitable Immunity Legislation

October 9, 2003
by Carol McCormick, Diocese of Worcester, MA

Thank you for the opportunity to speak before you today, and I would like to briefly layout my thoughts first on Bill H.1894.

The Massachusetts charitable immunity law dates from an 1876 Supreme Judicial Court case. Originally it was absolute, giving full immunity to organizations ranging from a local Boy Scout troop on a tiny budget to a Boston teaching hospital that pays its chief executive officer a six-figure salary and has malpractice insurance coverage as high as $1 million.

But in 1971, after the SJC threatened to abolish the immunity, the Legislature set a $20,000 cap.

Repeated efforts to raise the cap have failed. For example, there have been bills before the legislature in the past to raise hospital's liability limit to $500,000 and the Massachusetts Hospital Association has previously stated it would not oppose a cap on $100,000.

The charitable immunity rule was to encourage good works by charitable organizations but today it is used as a club with which to stave off liability. Should a charitable institution with tens or hundreds of millions at their disposal as well as insurance funds available, be penalized for abhorrent behavior on the same level as a Girl Scout or Boy Scout troop?

The original intention was to provide protection against bankruptcy for charitable institutions; today it is a permission slip for well-funded organizations to slap the face of society knowing full well the chances for law suits being filed when the fiduciary penalties allowed will bring those who file a mere pittance and those who prosecute them even less.

There are only ten states where a common law doctrine of charitable immunity exists. (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas, Virginia, Utah, Washington). I believe there are 3 states with caps for charitable immunity:
Colorado, which is limited to the extent of the existing insurance
South Carolina has a $250,000 cap
Massachusetts with a $20,000 cap

The absurdity of this limit is obvious; oftentimes the only equity to be gained though litigation is monetary, if a loved one is dead or dismembered this situation will never be righted so the penalty of society today is to hit the pocketbook of the offender.
With a cap of $20,000 there are many individuals that deserve justice but their cases will never see the light of day for lack of attorney's willing to work for the paltry sum they would receive should this cap be instituted.

There is a need for deterrence by imposing liability on the charity itself. In order for there to be fair and equitable punishment either adjust the cap on charitable liabilities or do as many other states have done, and what was requested in the past, remove the cap altogether.

Next, I would like to address the issue of the statue of limitations for both criminal and civil prosecution of sex crimes. (Bill 1893, & Bill 1895)

Recently the legislature saw fit to revise the statue of limitations to 15 years from the time the victims 16th birthday for criminal prosecution. For civil cases it is 3 years from the time damage has been recognized.

As a victim of abuse myself from about the age of 10 to about 13, I was unable to come to terms with the affects on my life until I was past the age of 35. Perhaps I can shed some light as to why it would take such a prolonged period of time to come to grips with how my life was affected by the abuse.

I had no idea what I was experiencing was in any way unique, I blamed much of my fear on insecurities, I thought everyone entertained the idea of driving their car off the road when traveling major highways. I thought everyone got anxiety to the point of panic when stuck in traffic. I thought everyone was plagued with violent nightmares. The things that began making me really feel crazy was when I began losing pieces of my life, actually blanking out when stresses became too much, or crying at work when someone suggested revising something I had done or going orbital should someone validate, my worthlessness. The feelings of worthlessness and fear were the only constants of my life. I was fearful of asking for help, for to ask for help gave someone else power over your life and THAT was frightening. Never mind I felt unworthy of any help. I lived in this world for many many years, never knowing there was a way out, never seeing a light at the end of a tunnel.

Once my flashbacks began I feared I was truly out of my mind and mentioned them to a girlfriend who told me to see a therapist. I did this and a few months later saw information about other victims of childhood clergy abuse, I had my name and my perpetrator's name put into a database. A couple of years later I got a call of another victim of the same priest, a girl who had been in my 6th grade class with me.

The reason I tell you this is because being in therapy is one of those points that begins the clock for the civil statue of limitations, it is claimed that by seeking therapy you have connected the dots on the damage and it's affects on your life. We did file suit against the Worcester diocese, the case was settled out of court in 1997, had I been granted a few more years before filing suit it would have made a difference in the choices I made during that entire litigation. I simply was not strong enough in my recovery to see the big picture, and was forced to file suit when we did, or allow my perpetrator essentially no consequences.

I would like to give other victims the chance I didn't get because of the statues.

In Massachusetts General Laws there are distinctions made for elderly or disabled persons.

In case law there has been distinctions made for children, pregnant women, and elderly.

It is imperative crimes of intentional infliction of emotion distress be defined by statue and those particularly susceptible to emotional distress be protected.

 


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