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Proposed bill could lead to prosecution of priests, lawsuits against dioceses

February 13, 2019

Over the past several years, bills introduced by state legislators to extend or eliminate the state’s rather short statute of limitations for filing charges in sexual assault cases were not approved.

But this year, supporters of the measure hope the recent release by the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Diocese of Norwich of the names of 91 priests who have been credibly accused of sexually assaulting children and teens will not only result in one of the bills becoming law but also eliminating the statute of limitations for filing civil lawsuits.

If both occur, living priests could face criminal charges and the dioceses likely would face a large number of new lawsuits by alleged victims who currently are prohibited from filing lawsuits after their 48th birthday.

One of the new bills has been filed by state Rep. Devin Carney, R-23rd District, who represents Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Westbrook.

“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” Carney said Tuesday. “This issue crosses party lines. I know Republicans who are proposing it and I know Democrats who are proposing it. It has bipartisan support.”

Carney said that the state currently has one of the shortest statute of limitations in the country for prosecuting sexual assault, as other states have either extended or eliminated their statute of limitations on sexual assault cases.

Currently just three sexual assault offenses can be prosecuted at any time: first-degree sexual assault (rape) when force or the threat of force is used and the victim is under 16 or the victim is under 13 and the offender is more than two years older; first-degree aggravated sexual assault when the victim is under 16 and aggravated sexual assault of a minor.

First-degree aggravated sexual assault when the victim is under 16 occurs when the offender is armed or threatens the use of deadly weapon; intends to disfigure or disable the victim, causing injury; engages in reckless conduct with extreme indifference to human life, which creates a risk of death and results in serious physical injury, or is aided by two or more persons who are present, which is known more commonly as gang rape.

Aggravated sexual assault of a minor occurs when the victim is under 13 and is also the victim of stalking or kidnapping, or was the victim of violence, or suffered serious injury or disfigurement.    

There is also no statute of limitations on certain serious sexual assaults if the victim reports the crime within five years and the offender’s identity later is established through DNA evidence collected at the time of the offense.

Otherwise the current criminal statute of limitations for minor victims is up to the victim’s 48th birthday or five years from when the victim notified police of the crime, whichever is shorter. For other sexual assault cases, the statute of limitations is five years. It is one year if the crime is fourth-degree sexually assault, such as fondling and groping, and the victim is 16 or older.,

Carney said that in the past, one reason the legislation has been unsuccessful is because of disagreement over whether the statute of limitations should be extended or eliminated.

He said the release of names of priests accused of sexual assaulting minors in the two dioceses may help build support for the bill because it is a recent development.

Carney said this year, legislators also are considering adding a provision that would eliminate the statute of limitations for filing civil lawsuits. He said he is open to considering that provision, as it would offer some justice for the victims.

Currently the only way a victim can file a lawsuit after age 48 is if the offender already has been convicted in criminal court of first-degree sexual assault or first-degree aggravated sexual assault. In those cases, the lawsuit can be brought at any time.

Supporters of the legislation say that elimination of the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil actions are important because it often takes victims years to come forward because of the shame, pain and embarrassment they feel.

Gail Howard, one of the leaders of the Connecticut chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Tuesday that her organization supports both measures but is particularly interested in getting the civil statute of limitations eliminated.

“For many survivors, by the time they come forward, their abuser is dead and there can be no conviction,” she said. “For many victims, the abuse has crippled them. They end up addicted to drugs and alcohol. They are in trouble with money and have led a very curtailed existence.”

She added that many victims had great aspirations but “gave up on life” after the abuse.

Dioceses and Catholic groups have opposed changes to criminal and civil statutes of limitations in the past, saying witnesses and evidence are often no longer available and memories deteriorate as years pass. In addition, alleged victims already have three decades after they become adults to take action.

The Diocese of Norwich did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment about the proposed bills.

More than a decade ago, when he approached New London attorney Robert Reardon about being sexually assaulted by the late James Curry when he was an 8-year-old altar boy at St. Joseph’s Church in Noank, John “Tim” McGuire of New London found out he had missed the 48th birthday deadline to file a lawsuit by just three weeks. On Tuesday, McGuire said he has clear memories each day of Curry and the sexual assaults. He said it is time for the diocese, which has paid settlements to two of Curry’s other alleged victims, to pay for what Curry did to him.

McGuire sent a lengthy letter Tuesday to legislative leaders, including state Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, calling for the elimination of both statutes of limitations.

“The statute of limitations has run out on all of us. Just because we didn’t speak of it soon enough, there is no path to justice. Some of us still refuse to be named, out of fear of retaliation from the church,” McGuire wrote. “Most of the victims have resorted to self-inflicted healing. Trying to drug or drink it away. Some of us have lost our families over this. Others have lost their livers. Some have killed themselves.”

“At what point do we, as a society realize that the church has walked away from hundreds of (its) victims just here in CT. I am one of many. We are in EVERY diocese in CT, bar none. We hail from Pawcatuck to Fairfield, and all points north,” he added. “We live in damage control. It has been fifty years since the abuse in some cases. We did our part. We kept our mouths shut. It is time for the church to settle up.”

He added that if the civil statute were extended or abolished, all victims of clergy abuse would at least get a chance at holding accountable those responsible.

“One would think the sexual assault of a child in an adult’s care is prosecutable, no matter how much time has elapsed. The forces used against the child were God, and an adult over a child. To think the church just reassigned the pedophiles to other locations to continue their crimes is just as criminal, but because a pedophile priest has died, there is no avenue to prosecute the church?” McGuire wrote, in part.

“If the law can’t protect us, what’s left? Please say there is something you can do,” he concluded.

j.wojtas@theday.com 

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