Efforts Against Abuse




Changes Sought in Massachusetts Sex Abuse Laws

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January 17, 2006

WORCESTER— Eunice White, a lifelong Catholic who said her religious faith means everything to her, believes she could have been an asset to the Roman Catholic Church but instead has been cast in the role of being a “thorn in the side of the church.”

As the mother of a man who alleges he was sexually abused by a priest of the Worcester diocese, she has begun to take center stage in the battle to reform laws in Massachusetts, reforms aimed at making it easier to prosecute those who sexually abuse minors.

Mrs. White and others in Central Massachusetts have joined a statewide coalition to support legislative measures to drop the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse so that victims can bring criminal charges many years after the alleged incidents, to drop the $20,000 charitable immunity cap in cases of sexual abuse of children so that the victims can get bigger settlements in lawsuits, and to make religious organizations responsible for filing public financial accountings with the state, as is required of other nonprofit groups.

She and others in Massachusetts working to change the laws on sexual abuse of minors got a boost last week when Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit told a legislative session in Ohio that he also was abused by a priest when he was 15 and that he favors changes in the laws of several states dealing with sexual abuse of minors.

He said he knows firsthand the difficulty a person encounters in revealing abuse by clergy because he also kept his abuse secret for years and only was revealing it now at age 75. He is the first American bishop to disclose that he was abused by a priest. He also is concerned that the lingering scandal is undermining the efforts of Catholics to carry out the social justice mission of the church.

Susan Renehan of Southbridge, co-director of the Coalition to Reform Sex Abuse Laws in Massachusetts, said the group hopes to get Bishop Gumbleton to come to Massachusetts and speak on the issues.

Mrs. White, a Worcester resident, appeared at a rally last week at the Statehouse in Boston and spoke at length on two matters: the need to change the statute of limitations for sexual abuse crimes against minors and to require that religious organizations make public disclosure of finances.

Her son, who is listed in court documents as John Doe, has a civil lawsuit pending against the Diocese of Worcester alleging that he was sexually abused during the 1970s by the Rev. Raymond Messier, who has been on leave from the diocese since the suit was filed.

“It’s got to stop. Someone has to step up to the plate,” Mrs. White said in an interview Friday. She said she was pleased to see 200 to 300 people attend the Statehouse rally but was disappointed that the event did not draw much media coverage.

“Massachusetts should be in the forefront of reforming laws, but we are among the last to change the laws against pedophiles. My concern is not just priests and clergy abuse to children, but any pedophiles,” she said. “These proposed changes in the law will not help my son, but it will help someone else’s child,” she said.

A number of Central Massachusetts legislators are supporting changes in the laws. Area co-sponsors of a bill to alter the statute of limitations on sexual abuse allegations include state Reps. Mark J. Carron, D-Southbridge, Lewis G. Evangelidis, R-Holden, John P. Fresolo, D-Worcester, Robert P. Spellane, D-Worcester, and state Sens. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre and Richard T. Moore, D-Uxbridge.

Mr. Fresolo said on Friday that he supports the reform legislation and wants to eliminate the statute of limitation on the crime of sexual abuse of a minor in both civil and criminal proceedings. Mr. Fresolo, a Catholic, said, “I think it is imperative to allow young sexual abuse victims time to come to terms with the assault on them before having to go through the ordeal of dealing with law enforcement, the legal system and their attacker,” he said.

Mr. Fresolo said he was told one lawyer involved with victims of clergy sexual abuse said the average age of abuse for his 40 clients was age 12, while most did not report the abuse until they were past age 40.

Mr. Fresolo added that he also supported the measure that would require religious organizations to make financial disclosures to the state, and he supports changes in the $20,000 charitable immunity cap that limits the amount of money that sexual abuse victims can collect from churches.

“The current cap on tort liability for charitable organizations is $20,000 for minor sex abuse cases. This bill would eliminate the cap relative to only those cases in which a nonprofit organization is negligent or reckless. Parents entrust their children to hundreds of nonprofits every day. It is that organization’s obligation to ensure each child is safe while under its care. This bill will ensure that organizations are thinking of the children first when dealing with accusations of sexual abuse,” Mr. Fresolo said.

Statutes of limitation serve a purpose in ensuring justice, he said, because memories fade and evidence is lost after years. He believes eliminating the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases could open the door to false prosecution of innocent people.

Bishop Robert J. McManus has sent letters to parishes asking Catholics of the diocese to begin contacting their legislators to say they oppose bills that would mandate public financial disclosure. He said that legislation would require an audit of each parish and it could cost as much as $10,000 to $15,000 a year.

State Sen. Marian D. Walsh, D-Boston, who is sponsoring the financial disclosure law, said the audit would be required of the diocese and not individual parishes. The financial disclosure bill also is opposed by the Massachusetts Council of Churches and other religious groups. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy and lobbying arm of the Massachusetts bishops, is opposed to all these changes, which they believe would undermine the constitutional separation of church and state.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests