Boston -- In a decision that could have broad consequences for clergy sexual abuse cases, the state's highest court Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit in which a woman said she was molested by a priest more than four decades ago.
The lawyer for the defendant in the lawsuit noted that many of the approximately 500 clergy sex abuse lawsuits pending against the Boston Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church also were filed decades after the alleged abuse.
The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the woman should have filed her lawsuit sooner because a reasonable person should have been able to make a connection much earlier between the abuse and the emotional harm she said she suffered.
State law requires that a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse of a minor must be filed within three years of the person's 18th birthday or within three years of the time the victim discovered that his or her emotional problems were linked to the abuse.
The woman, identified only as Jane Doe in court papers, is now in her early 60s. She filed her lawsuit in 1998 40 years after the alleged sexual abuse by the Rev. Gerard Creighton, when she was a high school student.
The case was dismissed in 2000 by a Superior Court judge who said the statute of limitations had expired because the woman had taken too long to make the connection between the abuse and her depression. The woman said she only made the connection in 1995, when she told another priest about the abuse and stopped blaming herself for her psychological problems.
The judge's decision was overturned by the state Appeals Court. But the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the decision of the Superior Court judge, ruling that the woman knew or should have known that the abuse was the root of her problems long before 1995.
Statutes of limitations for criminal sex abuse cases vary from state to state, but have generally prevented prosecutors from bringing accused priests to trial in the many decades-old cases revealed over the past year.
For instance, two grand juries investigating abuse claims against priests in New York found evidence of widespread wrongdoing, but said state time limits made criminal indictments impossible.
The situation is similar for civil cases, though California lifted the statute of limitations on lawsuits for just this year.
In Massachusetts, the high court said the woman should have realized the connection earlier because the alleged abuse occurred when she was 16 and 17 as she was nearing the age of maturity.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 108 alleged clergy abuse victims, said the majority of his cases involve people who were younger than 16 when they were allegedly abused.
"I don't believe this case is going to affect cases in which the victim is younger than 16," he said. "The door has not been slammed shut on victims by any means."
But Creighton's attorney, Marielise Kelly, said she believed the ruling had strong implications for the clergy sex abuse lawsuits pending against the archdiocese.
"This decision gives the church tremendous leverage to get these claims many of them dismissed outright, and at a minimum, gives them substantial leverage for settling the claims for amounts that I would suspect are different from what the plaintiffs were looking for before today," Kelly said.