N.H. sexual assault survivors call for statute of limitations reform

  • A bill seeking to eliminate the statute of limitations for all civil actions in sexual assault cases received overwhelming support during a public hearing at the State House on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. —Courtesy

  • A bill seeking to eliminate the statute of limitations for all civil actions in sexual assault cases received overwhelming support during a public hearing at the State House on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. —Courtesy

  • David Ouellette, 53, is a church abuse survivor after being abuse by Fr. Joseph Maguire in late 1970s. He agreed to sit for a portrait at White Park last week.

Monitor staff
Published: 2/20/2020 4:50:41 PM

For more than two decades, David Ouellette did not disclose the sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of his priest when he was just 15.

He silently lived with the pain until 2002, the same year the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team reported on sexual assault crimes and cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese. Ouellette was driving south on Interstate 93 while listening to National Public Radio, whose program hosts were discussing the church sexual abuse scandal.

“One of the guests said, ‘For the victims that haven’t come forward yet, others will be abused by the same person that hurt you,’ ” recalled Ouellette, of Manchester, in an interview Thursday morning near the State House.

Until that moment in 2002, Ouellette said he thought his victimization was a secret that he would have to take to his grave. He had grown up in a very religious family and his parents were devout Catholics.

But the truth was too important to conceal any longer. The first thing he did was tell his wife of 12 years, and then his children, he said.

Now 57, Ouellette appeared before lawmakers Thursday, speaking for the first time as a survivor of clergy sexual abuse to advocate for a change in state law. He was one of a handful of survivors who spoke in support of eliminating the statute of limitations, or the time frame that survivors have to file a civil claim against their abusers.

Ouellette, who now teaches at New Hampshire Technical Institute, had grown accustomed to testifying on bills concerning developmental disabilities in his prior role as a state employee, but Thursday’s hearing was far more personal. In preparing his remarks for the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said he once again felt the burden of that trauma and its impact on his life to date.

“As a man, I have to go back and look at my childhood and take care of that 15-year-old boy who wasn’t able to take care of himself through the abuse,” Ouellette told senators who had convened to hear public testimony on Senate Bill 508.

An arbitrary deadline

Ouellette never had the opportunity to pursue civil action against his abuser, Father Joseph Maguire. By the time he disclosed his abuse, the statute of limitations had expired. The burden is one he does not want other survivors to bear, especially children under the age of 18 who today have only until their 30th birthday to file a claim.

For those 18 years of age and older, civil action must be brought within three years under current state law. For example, that means a 17-year-old student and an 18-year-old student could both be sexually assaulted by a teacher, but the older student would have one-quarter of the time to take legal action.

The average age of disclosure for survivors of child sexual abuse is 52, according to the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“This bill reflects the reality that the impact of trauma can prevent victims from coming forward and disclosing their abuse for years, even decades, after the abuse happens,” said Lyn Schollett, the coalition’s executive director.

New Hampshire is not alone in considering statute of limitations reform. Last year, 23 states considered either extending the statute of limitations in civil or criminal cases or eliminating them altogether.

Lisa Solange Pavlopoulos, of Manchester, appeared Thursday at the State House for the third time since 2001 on statute of limitations reform. While New Hampshire has previously extended the statute in civil cases, it has not yet gone as far as to eliminate it. She told the committee that she hoped the third time was her final time.

“I’ve done a lot of work and I’m asking you to work with me,” Pavlopoulos said.

Born to an unwed mother and alcoholic father in Chile in the 1970s, Pavlopoulos was placed in foster care and, with the assistance of the Catholic Charities of New Hampshire, adopted at the age of two by a Manchester couple. What appeared to be a blessing and a second chance at life, turned into a nightmare. She said she was abused by her adoptive father for years.

Pavlopoulos ultimately filed a criminal report in mid-1997 against her father. Pavlopoulos agreed to a plea bargain and he would later serve 2½ years in prison, she said.

After the conviction, Pavlopoulos pursued civil action to recoup the mounting medical bills she had incurred as a result of her abuse. Her case ultimately went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which ruled that because she was aware of the abuse as a child, she had no legal recourse. In some cases, the courts will allow a person to file a claim if the injury caused was not apparent or realized until a later date. But the court ruled that the time of discovery was much earlier for Pavlopoulos.

“After experiencing a significant trauma, a victim must now choose which is more important: a criminal conviction in hopes of putting the abuser behind bars, or trying to recover monetary damages to cover medical bills and obtain mental health treatment,” she testified before the committee. “Which matters most to you? We shouldn’t have to choose; we should have the right to both options, a right that is deserved, not told, ‘sorry, time’s up.’ ”

Concord resident Melissa Hinebauch was a freshman at Dartmouth College in the 1980s when she was raped in her dorm by an upperclassman. She said her attacker broke into her room while she was sleeping and overpowered her. The abuse took years to process. She made an official report to the college and Hanover police in 1995.

“I wanted the sexual assault statistics to be more accurate, to reflect my painful experience on campus so that others might be protected in the future,” she said. “When I told Hanover police my rapist’s name, they knew exactly who I was talking about.”

However, because of her delay in reporting, the statute of limitations to file criminal charges had expired. In New Hampshire, victims over the age of 18 have six years to pursue criminal charges, whereas children who are sexually assaulted have until the age of 40. The bill currently before lawmakers calls for reform only in civil cases.

“Just because a crime happened years ago, doesn’t mean that it should be forgotten, and that the perpetrators shouldn’t be held accountable,” Hinebauch said.

Bipartisan support for reform

In addition to survivors, the committee heard from the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Democrat; the New Hampshire Association for Justice; the Granite State Children’s Alliance; Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN); attorneys and a psychologist. No one testified in opposition to the bill, which has the support of Gov. Chris Sununu, who in a letter to the committee urged the bill’s passage.

Sununu also expressed his support Thursday for a bill that would establish new requirements to address campus sexual violence, require institutions to work more closely with law enforcement and local crisis centers, and develop a task force and climate survey on sexual misconduct, in addition to educational programs and awareness campaigns. New Hampshire is one of 30 states with no legislation in place regarding sexual violence on college campuses. The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and the Every Voice Coalition have worked with students on college campuses since last fall to draft comprehensive reform, which went before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday as Senate Bill 679.

In an interview this week with the Monitor, John Gabrieli, founder and co-chairman of the Every Voice Coalition, said New Hampshire has an opportunity to become a national leader in preventing sexual violence.

“If the New Hampshire bill is signed into law, it will be one of the most comprehensive in the country,” Gabrieli said, noting that other states have passed portions of the bill. “It codifies a big set of protections and best practices that every student has the right to and should have access to.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at  369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)

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