Priest abuse victims press legislature to change statute of limitations

Hartford — Sitting before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Monday, Dwayne Gray of Guilford told his story in public for the first time.

The now 57-year-old business owner told members that from 1973 to 1976, the Rev. Daniel McSheffery performed oral sex on him multiple times in a room off the sacristy and one day took him to a cottage on the church property where he began to perform anal sex on him. Gray said he managed to escape and run home.

But when he got there, he said he was knocked to the ground and his parents began yelling at him — the church had called to say his services as an altar boy were no longer needed because of his actions against McSheffery. His father yelled that he could not hit a priest while his mother beat him with a belt for days.

He told senators and representatives on the committee that he never spoke about the incident because of the shame he felt and the feeling that the church was too powerful. He said he never had children because he worried about the anger he had inside from the assaults.

Gray was one of several men and women who have accused priests of sexually assaulting them as children who urged the Judiciary Committee during a lengthy public hearing Monday to support a provision in a Senate bill that would give victims who are prohibited from filing lawsuits due to their age a 27-month window to do so.

Some alleged victims who have waited to reveal the sexual abuse they suffered until later in life have discovered they are unable to file lawsuits because they did not do so by age 48, under the current statute of limitations. They and their supporters say that due to a number of factors, many victims wait until much later in life to reveal the abuse.

Many adult victims of sexual assault also related their experiences to the committee Monday and urged them to support another portion of the bill that would extend the statute of limitations for the criminal prosecution of those accused of sexual assault.

When victims of sexual assault spoke Monday about 30 members of the group the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, dressed in blue T-shirts, silently rose from their seats and stood in support of the speakers. While speakers are typically given just three minutes to make their comments, committee co-chairman state Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, and others members gave the victims extra time to tell their stories and then thanked them for having the courage to do so in public.

No one officially representing the state’s Catholic dioceses, which oppose the bill, spoke at Monday’s hearing. One priest, the Rev. Ted Tumicki from the Norwich diocese, raised a legal question with the committee regarding how the state’s immunity from lawsuits would be affected by the change.

If the provision is approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont, it is expected to result in alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests, nuns, deacons and bishops filing lawsuits against the dioceses, including the Norwich diocese.

Some of the most emotional testimony came almost six hours into the hearing, when 60-year-old John “Tim” McGuire of New London told 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.

Crying and fighting to get his words out, McGuire told the committee that 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.

“I’ve spent most of my life trying to talk myself out of killing myself and hoping God would not send me to Hell,” he said. “That’s where I lived ... just trying to make it to tomorrow.”

“The church knows they did this to me,” he said, adding that it makes him sick to his stomach to hear people defend its actions and oppose the bill.

“Time should favor the victims because it takes people well into adulthood to say something,” he said.

Steve Kennedy, 32, of Fairfield, told the committee he can still feel “the burning heat in his chest” that he felt when as a 6-year-old a priest told him he needed to be taught a lesson and began squeezing his penis and testicles. He said others later accused the priest, who eventually left the priesthood but is living today in New Haven.

“I can’t imagine how many others like me are out there,” he told the committee. “I don’t want to be here today. I don’t want money. I want this man to face justice and not see anyone else get hurt.”

Both Beth McCabe and Gail Howard, the co-leaders of the Connecticut chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told the committee how they too were sexually assaulted by priests as children in other states.

Howard told the committee that Catholics believe the clergy are their direct link to God.

“So the victims of clergy abuse are provided with a dire choice,” Howard said. “Either denounce your link to God or denounce yourself. Denouncing yourself is safer.”

Joan Carpenter said that as an 8-year-old she was raped by the Rev. Francis McKenna in her home and at St. Ann School in Bridgeport, the same parish now attended by Stafstrom, the committee co-chairman.

“I knew what he did was real bad but I thought I was strong enough to deal with it,” she said, adding one reason she never told anyone was she was sure her father would have killed the priest and she did not want to see him go to prison.

“I prayed and I prayed I could keep this secret to myself. I was a child and Father McKenna was like a God. Everyone in Black Rock (a section of Bridgeport) loved him,” she said.

“This experience took a lot of my childhood away. It affects my life today. I still cry about what happened to me,” she said.

Cary Silverman, a lawyer representing the American Tort Reform Association, called extending the statute of limitations “rather extreme” and unprecedented in state law. He said judges and juries need to have the best evidence possible to determine liability, something that erodes as time passes.

Other opponents have pointed out that memories fade and witnesses die as time passes, making it difficult to prove or defend criminal and civil cases.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who heads the group Child USA, which tracks statute of limitation changes across the country, also addressed the committee.

She said that on average it takes victims to age 52 to reveal they were abused, which is four years later than what is now allowed by state law to file a lawsuit. She said passing the bill would expose hidden perpetrators, shift the cost of the abuse from the victims and the state to the perpetrators and help educate the public.

She said that in states that have implemented a window for older victims to file suits regardless of age, about 1,000 to 1,200 per state do so.

She said extending the statute of limitations allows victims to obtain evidence and information about the perpetrator and the coverup that followed their actions from sources such as the “perversion files” kept by the Boy Scouts and the “secret archives’” of the Catholic Church.

As for people filing false allegations, she said there has not been one false claim in any of the 10 states that have created a new window for filing claims.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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