Court Makes It Harder to Sue in Some Cases of Sexual Abuse

By Adam Liptak
New York Times
May 1, 2003

Massachusetts' highest court made it more difficult yesterday for people who say they were sexually abused as children to sue long after the events in question.

Legal experts said the decision might affect a small but significant percentage of the hundreds of sexual abuse suits pending against the Archdiocese of Boston.

A Massachusetts law allows people who say they were sexually abused as children to sue in the three years after they turn 18. The law extends that time limit further in cases where the plaintiff was not aware of the emotional harm caused by the abuse or the link between the harm and the abuse.

Yesterday's decision, by the state's Supreme Judicial Court, concerned a woman who said she was sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest in 1958 during her senior year in high school. Although the woman said she soon felt shame, grief and depression, she said she did not connect those symptoms to the abuse until 1995, when she discussed her experiences with another priest.

The court ruled that a reasonable person would have grasped the connection between the symptoms and the abuse much sooner. It said it did not matter that the woman herself, who said she was sexually naive and who joined a convent after graduating from high school, was actually unaware of the connection.

The court distinguished cases involving younger victims, abuse that took place over a period of years and emotional injuries that were not immediately apparent. Justice Judith A. Cowin wrote that yesterday's case involved "an overtly abusive relationship that produced an immediate and obvious injury as the plaintiff neared the age of maturity."

Two years ago, by contrast, the court held that a man who said he had been abused for over three years starting at age of 13 could sue long after the events.

Jeffrey A. Newman, a Boston lawyer who represents many plaintiffs in cases against the archdiocese there, estimated that yesterday's ruling might raise questions in the cases of perhaps 20 of his firm's 260 clients. Most cases, Mr. Newman said, involve young children, extended abuse or repressed memories.

He criticized the court's understanding of what reasonable conduct is in cases of abuse involving priests.

"The real problem is that you've got people who are raised to believe that priests are God-like and that everything they do is right," he said. "To suggest that that cannot be part of the lexicon of proof put before a jury cannot be right."


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