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Task force recommends repeal of statute of limitations in sex assault lawsuits

January 8, 2020 

By Joe Wojtas | The Day, HARTFORD, CT (January 7, 2020) — A General Assembly task force voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend lawmakers introduce legislation that would eliminate the current statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits by victims of sexual assault, abuse or exploitation.

The recommendations also specify 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.

If a bill containing the recommendations is approved by the General Assembly in the upcoming session and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont, it would make Connecticut just the second state in the nation behind Vermont to totally eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims to file lawsuits. Other states, such as New York, have increased the age to file suits and created a one-time window of a year or two for victims of any age to file lawsuits.

Tim McGuire of New London, who alleges he was sexually assaulted when he was 8 by a Catholic priest in Noank but has been unable to sue the Diocese of Norwich due to the current statute of limitations, called the task force’s recommendation Tuesday “fabulous” news.

“It’s exactly what we’ve been fighting for,” he said. “How can anyone set a time limit on when you’re ready to say what happened? This would help all the victims who have been left behind.”

“There should be no law to protect these guys. The law needs to protect kids, not pedophiles,” added McGuire, who testified before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee last year about repealing the statute of limitations.

The task force was the result of an unsuccessful effort in the last legislative session to eliminate the statute of limitations for 27 months to give sexual assault victims who had been prevented from filing lawsuits because they were older than 48, the cutoff age at the time, an opportunity to do so. In addition to forming the task force to study the issue and make recommendations, the legislature also increased the age limit from 48 to 51.

The task force, which has a Jan. 15 deadline to submit its report with recommendations to the General Assembly, is headed by state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, a strong proponent of eliminating the statute of limitations.

Over the past few months, the task force has held hearings on the issue, listening to testimony from victims, experts on the issue, a representative of the American Tort Reform Association and Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and constitutional law scholar who has tracked and studied the issue across the country for the past 16 years.

Hamilton told the task force in December that, on average, it takes a person until age 52 to reveal to someone they were sexually assaulted as a child. That is one year later than the current statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit in Connecticut.

The task force agreed to include in its report that the trauma of childhood sexual assault makes it difficult for victims to come forward.

Task force member Paul Slager, an attorney, said it was important that the task force recommend the change be retroactive, so sexual assault victims who are unable to file a suit now can take advantage of the change.

“It would be unfair to punish them,” he said.

Another attorney on the task force, Douglas Mahoney, pointed out that no Connecticut resident spoke in opposition to repealing the statute of limitations during the task force meetings. “I think the reason is that the overwhelming majority of people in the state support this,” he said.

As for concerns the change would result in an avalanche of lawsuits overwhelming the courts, task force members and Hamilton have said there is no evidence this has happened in Vermont or any state that has opened a window of time for victims of all ages to sue.

“If there is a repeal, it will benefit a very few people but some very important people,” Mahoney said.

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.

There have also been concerns in the past from opponents of changing the statute of limitations, such as churches, schools and other institutions, that not only will there be cases with false allegations but lawsuits will be difficult to defend because witnesses and defendants have died, memories have faded and documents no longer are available.

But supporters of repeal, such as Hamilton, have said attorneys are unwilling to take on cases that will not be successful because they are so expensive to handle. In addition, they say plaintiffs still have the burden of proof and need evidence and corroboration.

After the task force voted 6-0, with one abstention, to finalize its recommendations with no dissenting opinions, Slager commented that it was “remarkable that a task force in this building would be unanimous with its recommendations.”

Task force member Barbara Bellis, a Superior Court judge, abstained from the vote and discussion because the judicial code of conduct prohibits her from taking policy positions that would affect her position. She explained she handles lawsuits involving allegations of sexual assault.

Flexer said that she, along with a large group of co-sponsors, now plans to introduce a bill reflecting the task force’s recommendations when the General Assembly session begins next month. She said she expects public hearings before the Judiciary Committee, of which she is member, to be held in February or March.

Flexer said she was grateful for the victims who told the task force their stories in public, some for the first time. She said she also was grateful that task force members grasped the seriousness of the issue after listening to the compelling testimony of victims and experts and concluding the best policy is the complete elimination of the statute of limitations.

“The state will recognize the years of injustice these victims have suffered and give them the opportunity to finally seek justice,” she said.

Gail Howard, one of the co-leaders of the Connecticut chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said her group was “delighted and heartened” by the recommendations of the task force and looks forward to the bill that will emerge from its work.

She added her group was encouraged that lawmakers viewed the suggested changes in light of the experience of victims of childhood sexual abuse.