New law helps victims of sexual assault

When I became District Attorney four years ago, some of the first crime victims I met were individuals who had been sexually abused as children and teenagers. It was heartbreaking to see how the sexual abuse they suffered so long ago continued to hurt them so terribly.

One thing I carried away from these meetings was the knowledge that it can take years to overcome that pain. Some victims may need decades to realize that the abuse was not their fault, and others will struggle for their entire lives with those feelings of shame and trauma and self-blame.

But if these meetings could be wrenchingly sad, they were also striking in that so many of the men and women I met were incredibly courageous people. I still remember Tom and Arthur and Gary, grown men who wrestled with the abuse they suffered as children, whose compassion for others in spite of their own visible pain was the inspiration for the bill I filed in 2002 to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual assault. Today they remain in the forefront of my mind and my heart.

Until Sept. 21, Massachusetts prosecutors were legally barred from pursuing criminal charges in cases more than 15 years old. If a grown victim came to us with evidence that he or she had been sexually abused as a child, we were almost always prevented from prosecuting the case because the statute of limitations had expired. But last month, a bill was signed into law that extended that period by more than a decade, and we are now able to criminally charge child molesters up to 27 years after the fact, holding them accountable in courts of law and providing victims the chance to see their abusers punished.

Many people along the way have lent their assistance to making a four-year-old bill become a powerful new law. There are the prosecutors in my office whose commitment to children’s welfare has led to countless convictions for child abuse and exploitation; the members of our state government who worked to reach a compromise that would pass muster in the House, the Senate and the Executive branch; the members of the media who only treated these victims with compassion, but who helped move this idea from the public policy fringe to the mainstream; and the children’s advocates and service providers who never let the issue fade from public consciousness.

But most of all, we owe a debt to Tom, Arthur, Gary, and every other person who suffered sexual abuse decades ago and refused to allow another victim to go through life without justice because the clock had run out. We fought for this law in their name and in the name of countless others who have not yet found their way out of the shadow of abuse. If abused children today can find justice tomorrow, it will be because of these victims’ courage, commitment and enormous strength of character. More than anything or anyone else, they are the heroes who made this new law possible.

Daniel F. Conley
Suffolk County District Attorney

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