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Protect children, ensure accountability, lift statutory limits

Removing statutory limits on the age at which adult survivors of child sexual abuse may sue for damages is simply justice, given what we now know about the lasting effects of psychological trauma. It also will signal that complicity in shielding perpetrators from accountability is over, and that Connecticut will put the protection of children before the interests of institutions.

The state's legislative task force on the statute of limitations regarding sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and sexual assault is nearing the deadline for its assignment. By Jan. 15 it is to recommend whether and how much to extend the age limit for victims to sue their alleged abusers; whether to open a "look-back window" for those already past the current age limit of 51; or both. The most recent session extended the age limit by three years and created the task force to study further action. Experts have testified that 52 is the average age for a person to be ready to come forward.

The task force's mandate applies not only to accusations against clergy. However, the Roman Catholic dioceses in Connecticut are getting much of the committee's attention because of the church's lobbying against extending the limits, and because the victims who testified at a recent hearing focused on abuse by priests.

The church has been damaging its reputation as a moral authority by behaving instead like the client of a lawyer who is advising not to admit anything. Dioceses in the United States, including Connecticut, release as little, as late and with as many excuses as they can when providing lists of credibly accused abusers. Last February the Diocese of Norwich released a list naming 43 abusers — later adjusted to 45 — and stated that the diocese spent a total of $7.7 million to settle claims. The Day already had identified 28 priests and brothers associated with the diocese who had been accused; six priests were left off the list. Attorney Kelly Reardon of New London said her firm alone had obtained $8.1 million for nine clients. The discrepancy has not been explained.

The Associated Press recently concluded an exhaustive investigation comparing financial and legal records to the lists and came up with more than 900 credibly accused clergy members in various dioceses who were left off, plus 400 in dioceses that have yet to release any.

The response of any institution that employed an accused abuser of children should be to help find the truth and seek justice. But that is still not happening in too many instances, and for that reason the law needs to do what conscience has not.

Chairperson Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and the task force should consider the consistent efforts to obfuscate and delay, and come down firmly on the side of redressing wrongs and protecting children.

In the years since the clergy sex abuse crisis broke, 24 states have increased their statutes of limitations to an average age of 55. Several, including New York and New Jersey, offer a short-term "window" for filing at any age. Vermont no longer has any limit.

In December Pope Francis ended a confidentiality provision in church law that some bishops used as a reason not to report allegations of sexual abuse to civil authorities or to give alleged victims information they sought. The change to the so-called "pontifical secret" provision removes any excuse not to cooperate with legitimate requests from prosecutors, police or child welfare agencies.

That may move the logjam within the church. We hope it also means that any future accusation is unfailingly reported to police and the Department of Children and Families. But it does not change the responsibility of law enforcement to investigate allegations of crime or of cover-up. The task force should recommend in favor of past victims and to protect against new ones: Eliminate the statute of limitations and open a window for victims over the current age limit to file suit.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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