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Spotlight Report

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DA seeks to lift time limit on rape cases

By Sacha Pfeiffer and Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 6/27/2002

Troubled by the large number of clergy sex abuse cases that are too old to be prosecuted, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley today will propose legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations for rape.

If the bill becomes law, Massachusetts would join a growing number of states, including Maine, that have removed the time limit on law enforcement officials' ability to prosecute rapists.

The proposed legislation covers rape and attempted rape of children or adults, and does not specifically target offenses committed by clergy.

But Conley acknowledged that the recent explosion of sex abuse allegations against priests was the catalyst for the bill, which is designed to address a problem that has long disturbed law enforcement officials: Many credible accusations against priests involve incidents that happened so long ago they fall outside the statute of limitations and cannot be prosecuted.

Conley noted that of the 50 Catholic priests referred to his office for investigation of sex abuse allegations in the past few months, more than 30 couldn't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired.

In many of those 30 cases, Conley said, ''it was very clear to me that they would have been prosecutable but for the statute of limitations.''

Conley also said recent publicity of clergy sex abuse has spurred a ''significant increase'' in the number of adults who allege past sexual abuse by nonclergy.

The legislation is not retroactive, so its passage would be purely symbolic for victims whose time to press charges has run out. If it becomes law, the bill would make rape and attempted rape the only crimes besides murder for which there is no time limit for prosecution in Massachusetts.

Many legislators and law enforcement officials said the change is long overdue.

''Whether [abuse] happened 10 or 15 or 20 or 30 years ago, if the evidence is there and it's a strong case, there should be nothing to put an obstacle in the way of going forward with a criminal prosecution,'' said state Senator Cheryl Jacques, a Needham Democrat. In 1996, Jacques sponsored a bill that expanded the statute of limitations for rape from 10 years to its current 15.

The prospects for Conley's bill, which he said will be filed on his behalf by state Representative Eugene O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is unclear.

Wendy Murphy, a former prosecutor who represents victims of sexual abuse, has long argued that the statute of limitations should be eliminated for cases in which children are abused. She praised prosecutors for putting up the bill, but noted that past efforts to eliminate the statute have failed, and prosecutors face an uphill battle.

She said the Judiciary Committee, the gatekeeper for new legislation, has traditionally been dominated by defense attorneys who are philosophically opposed to amending, let alone eliminating, statutes of limitations for any crimes except murder.

''But then again, attitudes have changed everywhere because of what we have seen happen with the church,'' Murphy said. ''Maybe even attitudes will change on Beacon Hill.''

Meanwhile, O'Flaherty, the lawmaker who Conley said was sponsoring the proposed legislation, said in an interview that he had not made a decision on whether to support the bill, and strongly hinted that he would not be its sponsor.

''This proposed legislation is timely, but I might suggest to the DA to seek another proponent, because as chairman I might need to propose changes to it, and I need to remain impartial,'' said O'Flaherty, a lawyer who began his career as a public defender and still does criminal defense work.

O'Flaherty acknowledged that public outrage over clergy sex abuse has sparked wide debate over the statute of limitations in such cases. But he cautioned that addressing those concerns, while balancing the rights of victims and the rights of the accused, might ''be very difficult in one small package.''

Asked if the traditionally conservative approach to amending laws on Beacon Hill has changed in the wake of the scandal, O'Flaherty said, ''It's hard to say what the mood of the membership is.''

David Procopio, Conley's spokesman, said they ''very strongly believe'' that O'Flaherty supports the measure, but his chairmanship may be a ''technical issue'' that could get in the way of his sponsorship of the statute of limitations bill.

''We still plan to file it, [and] if we have to, we'll find another sponsor,'' Procopio said.

Several states, including Alaska, Alabama, California, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Maine, have passed similar legislation in recent years.

Over the years, the statute of limitations for rape in Massachusetts has been amended to allow victims more time to bring criminal charges, but under the statutes that prevailed in the 1960s and '70s, the window of time to bring charges has closed for many victims.

As a result, despite the huge number of alleged clergy sex abuse victims who have come forward, very few criminal charges have been brought.

The few Boston archdiocese priests who have been arrested and jailed on charges of sexually abusing minors, such as the Revs. Paul R. Shanley and Ronald H. Paquin, have been implicated for allegations that date to the 1990s.

In cases of rape of a child under 16 in Massachusetts, criminal charges must be brought within 15 years after the crime was reported to police or within 15 years after the victim turns 16, whichever comes first.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 6/27/2002.
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