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Massachusstts AG backs ending limit on child sex-abuse charges

By Michael Levenson, Globe Correspondent
March 6, 2005

After meeting with a 27-year-old firefighter who successfully pressed charges of child rape against defrocked priest Paul R. Shanley, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said yesterday that he is reversing himself and will now support a bill to eliminate the 15-year statute of limitations for sexual abuse crimes against children.

''A predator of a child should never be out of the reach of the law," Reilly said in a telephone interview yesterday. ''If a prosecutor can make a case, and there are victims who are willing and able to make that case, the law should not stand in their way."

Reilly said he had been moved by the Shanley case and his recent meeting with the victim, which occurred last month, days before Shanley was convicted. On the day the former priest was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison, the Middlesex Superior Court courtroom was filled with other alleged Shanley victims who said they could not press charges because of the statute of limitations.

''The Shanley case was a very important case," Reilly said. ''When someone is brave enough to come forward and testify and confront their abuser, they should not be prevented because of any technicality in the law."

In the Shanley case, the then-priest had left Massachusetts for California in 1990, legally stopping the clock on the statute of limitations. Shanley was arrested in San Diego in 2002, and his criminal case became a public example of the challenges facing prosecutors and victims who seek to translate decades-old allegations into convincing testimony.

Reilly's announcement bolstered hope for a measure that has languished in the Legislature despite persistent lobbying by legal advocates and alleged victims. Reilly said he would support the basic outline of legislation filed by Representative Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, which would eliminate the 15-year cap for persons who commit rape, assault of a child with intent to commit rape, incest, open and gross lewdness, and other crimes.

Advocates who have lobbied hard for the bill at the State House hailed Reilly's announcement yesterday as a boost that could help get the measure passed. Reilly has been meeting for months with victims of sexual abuse and their advocates, but had not stated his support for the bill, until now.

''Oh, thank heavens," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, when told of Reilly's announcement. ''There is no single more effective reform that will prevent future abuse. With the limit, as it stands, abusers and those who shield abusers have an incentive to destroy evidence, and intimidate witnesses, and threaten victims, simply to let the clock run out on these horrific crimes."

Changing the law would not allow prosecutors to reopen criminal cases older than 15 years, Clohessy said, but it would send a comforting message to abuse victims that the courts will always remain open to try future cases.

''Across the country, it has felt like only sex abuse victims have been leading this charge," Clohessy said.

''Many in law enforcement have been silent or offered minimal support. So to have someone of [Reilly's] stature, as the chief law enforcement person in the state, backing this is huge."

Supporters of the bill have lobbied hard in recent months, recruiting volunteers and deploying them in their districts to push the issue one-on-one with legislators, said Susan Renehan, codirector of the year-old Coalition to Reform Sex Abuse Laws in Massachusetts. Yesterday, she credited heavy networking with helping to recruit 47 cosponsors for the bill, and she predicted Reilly's support would sway more legislators.

''I'm very excited to get his OK," Renehan said. ''It's clearly become a movement because the laws are not protecting children."

State Senator Steven A. Tolman, a supporter of the bill, said he was not aware of public opposition to the legislation.

Clohessy agreed, saying the bill had languished in the past because of neglect. ''In general, it's not been a matter of opposition; it's been a matter of too many bills, too little time, and no influential champions."

Tolman said he hoped Reilly could prove to be one such prominent champion. ''The attorney general's support is a big boost," Tolman said, ''but the real important issue is we have to get our message across. And when we do, I don't think anybody can argue against us."

In 2003, when his office delivered a scathing report that found clergy may have abused as many as 1,000 children over the past 60 years, Reilly said he could not support eliminating the statute of limitations, opting instead to press for tougher penalties for clergy and others who failed to report abuse to the authorities.

At the time, despite evidence that some victims do not report sexual abuse for years, Reilly said he had concerns about false and fading memories making the prosecution of such cases difficult or impossible.

''I, like many prosecutors, had reservations about the difficulty of prosecuting these cases, and not holding out expectations that are unrealistic."

Now, Reilly said, ''I hope it does pass."


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests