How Long Should Culpability Last? ; This Week's Dismissal of Abuse Charges against a Catholic Bishop Raises Many Issues, from Statutes of Limitations to a Cultural Shift

By Sara B. Miller writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

How Long Should Culpability Last? ; This Week's Dismissal of Abuse Charges against a Catholic Bishop Raises Many Issues, from Statutes of Limitations to a Cultural Shift


Sara B. Miller writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The peculiarity of the episode - a Roman Catholic bishop indicted on child-rape charges, and a prosecutor dismissing those charges hours later - is typical of the hurdles and complexity of trying sexual-abuse cases.

The events in Springfield, Mass., where retired Bishop Thomas Dupre is accused of molesting two boys in the 1970s, were a blow to victims' advocates, who had looked forward to the first prosecution of a Roman Catholic prelate as a landmark step in the sexual-abuse scandal that erupted in 2002.

The circumstances also highlight a larger debate over sexual abuse and justice. The charges against Bishop Dupre, like so many recent allegations against clergy, date back decades, and because of statutes of limitations, are beyond legal reach. The case has renewed attempts in Massachusetts to end those time limits in an effort, say advocates, to protect future victims and those who have yet to come forward.

But some argue that such statutes provide vital protection against verdicts based on insufficient evidence: As the years go by, ever fewer witnesses are alive or available to testify, and the clarity of events may fade. What's more, many suspect that the worst wave of cases has already passed - that abuse in churches, schools, and other organizations peaked in the 1970s and was more a sign of the era than a sign of things to come.

"Advocacy groups say that [the peak in the 1970s] is due to that fact that it takes a long time for people to come forward," says Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University. "We disagree with that. There was a confluence of events in the 1970s.... There is remarkable evidence [to suggest that] there was something particular about the era."

The indictment charging the former leader of the Springfield diocese was unsealed Monday. That afternoon, Hampden District Attorney William Bennett announced he was prohibited from pursuing charges because the statute of limitations had run out long before. (Currently, it can be up to 15 years in Massachusetts; it was six in this case, due to when the alleged abuse occurred.)

The plaintiffs' lawyer, Jeffrey Newman, says Dupre may face charges in other states, since he allegedly traveled outside Massachusetts with the boys. Under certain state provisions, if a suspect leaves a state in which he or she committed a crime, the clock on the statute of limitations stops until he or she returns to that state. Mr. Bennett said he is handing information to authorities in New Hampshire, New York, and Canada.

Still, many local advocates were disappointed and dismayed. "The way events unfolded, it gave us a sense of sudden hope that some prosecutor somewhere was going to follow through and pull it off," says Peter Pollard, the western Massachusetts coordinator of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "[The case] really symbolized that this is an issue that permeated the entire structure of the church."

His group was among those lobbying outside the Boston Statehouse Wednesday, calling for an abolition of the state's statute of limitations. Statutes vary by state and crime. Murder has no limitations, and some states have no limits for rape cases involving children, says Patrick Noaker, a lawyer in Minnesota who represents abuse victims.

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