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Another delay for older victims of childhood sexual assault seeking justice

Older victims of childhood sexual assault, who currently are prohibited from suing their attackers, will have to wait at least another year to see if the state statute of limitations can be changed.

That's because no bill to do so was introduced in the current General Assembly session or during the 2020 session, both of which saw a limited number of bills raised amid restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That effort to change the law has been headed by state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, who co-introduced a sexual harassment and sexual assault bill in 2019. Among its provisions, it called for the elimination of the statute of limitations for 26 months to give childhood sexual assault victims who are older than 48, the cutoff age at the time, an opportunity to file lawsuits. But that provision was stripped from the bill before it was approved. The new law did create a legislative task force to study the issue and make recommendations and increased the cutoff age to file suits from 48 to 51. 

In early 2020, that task force, headed by Flexer, voted unanimously to recommend that lawmakers introduce legislation that would eliminate the current statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits by victims of childhood sexual assault, abuse or exploitation.

The recommendations also specified that the change be retroactive, meaning victims of any age could sue, including those who are now prohibited from doing so because they are older than 51, the current age limit for filing lawsuits.

That recommendation would have benefitted many people who say they were sexually assaulted by Catholic priests across the state but did not reveal what happened to them until later in life and are now barred from suing.

Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and constitutional law scholar who studied the issue across the country, told Flexer's task force in 2019 that, on average, it takes a person until age 52 to reveal to someone they were sexually assaulted as a child, which is one year later than the current statute of limitations.

But opponents of opening a window for victims of any age to sue say defendants, such as the Catholic church, may be put at a disadvantage. This is because they say witnesses they need may not be alive, memories may have faded and documents may not be available. They also warn the law could spark false allegations. Opening a window also could expose the defendant organizations to costly court awards and settlements.

Several men in their late 50s and 60s in southeastern Connecticut have told The Day they likely would file lawsuits against the Diocese of Norwich, alleging they were sexually assaulted as children by priests assigned to the diocese, if the statute of limitations were repealed.     

Flexer did not respond to several request to comment on the status of the effort over the past few months.

Hope for victims

But on Tuesday, one of the leaders of the Connecticut chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said that while she is disappointed a bill was not raised this year, there is some good news.

Gail Howard said her group, along with the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, is working with members of the  legislature's Judiciary Committee to ensure a bill is raised in the 2022 session. She said no promises have been made yet by legislators but the groups are hopeful.

"These victims are running out of time," she said. "The people who need this bill are running out of years."

Howard pointed out that across the country, states such as New York have been approving legislation to create a window of time for victims to file suits, regardless of their age.

"If they can do it in other states, we can do it here in Connecticut, too," she said.

"We're just going to keep at it," she said. "I know many people in Connecticut think this is only fair to do."

John "Tim" McGuire, 62, of New London testified before the Judiciary Committee in 2019 and told lawmakers his story of being repeatedly sexually assaulted as an 8-year-old altar boy by the late Rev. James Curry at St. Joseph's Church in Noank. When he finally decided at age 48 to reveal what had happened to him, he discovered he had missed the deadline to file a lawsuit by three weeks.

On Wednesday McGuire said that while he was disappointed no action has been taken over the past two legislative sessions, he is looking toward January 2022.

"If it was up to the church, all these guys would be dead before they get anything. This is not about politics. This is the morally right thing to do," he said about eliminating the statute of limitations. "I don't know why it has not been done already." 

j.wojtas@theday.com

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