For many years, advocates for victims of childhood sexual abuse have sought to extend the applicable statute of limitations in Massachusetts, so that recovering adult victims have more time to bring civil lawsuits against their abusers.
The issue came to a head late last July, near the end of last year’s formal legislative session. The House passed a bill liberalizing the rules with a few days to go in the session. Late in afternoon, on the very last day of the legislative session, the Senate President convened a discussion on the issue. Watertown Representative John Lawn, a strong advocate for reform, had educated me about the bill, and I spoke in favor trying to find a way to act on it. The Senate President asked me to lead a further conversation to sort out the options.
In our informal working group, there was overwhelming sentiment to get something done, but in the few hours we had, we could not sort out conflicting technical opinions about how to move forward. It did appear that there were constitutional and drafting defects in the House bill, so we couldn’t just pass it as it was. We sent back to the House a simplified version, knowing that it also was imperfect. We hoped that we might be able to work out the problems in a conference committee during the months of informal sessions from August through December.
The House and Senate did convene a conference committee on which I served. Conversations continued informally and I maintained hope for a positive outcome through the fall. However, at the end of December, somehow the discussions foundered.
I have personally developed a conviction that we do need to take action on the issue. Current law requires a victim to bring a law suit by the age of 21 or within three years of when “the victim discovered or reasonably should have discovered that an emotional or psychological injury or condition was caused by said act.”
Victims of childhood sexual abuse often don’t realize the full extent of the harm done to them until decades later. And even after realizing the harm done, they often need more time to rebuild the self-esteem necessary to seek redress from their abusers. Confusion is often intrinsic to the harm caused — as abusers break fundamental boundaries for the child. In practice, the current ‘knew or should have known’ discovery rule leaves many recovering adult victims without the opportunity to have their day in court.
I have filed a bill S.633 that would give victims until the age of 55 to bring a lawsuit. The bill would be retroactive in the sense that it would apply to victims who have passed the age of 21 at the time of passage, effectively reviving claims that have expired. This goes further than the bill that the House passed last year. Representative Lawn has filed a version that goes one step further, creating a one-year window in which victims of any age can bring forward expired claims.
I’m prepared to vote for either bill and I hope that together we can build on the progress we made in the last session and get something done sooner rather than later.