WINDSOR TERRACE — A specific aspect of the statute of limitations on criminal charges in Massachusetts allowed ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s accuser to pursue charges for an alleged sexual assault nearly 50 years ago.
The laicized cleric was charged with three counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14, according to a court filing by the Wellesley police in Dedham District Court last week. The charges stem from McCarrick allegedly sexually assaulting a minor during a wedding reception at Wellesley College on June 8, 1974.
The statute of limitations for criminal cases in Massachusetts is set up to “toll” (pause) when the offender is out of the state. McCarrick has never resided in Massachusetts, therefore, the statute of limitations for this case doesn’t apply.
“The idea behind this is that somebody who leaves the state makes it more difficult to conduct a criminal investigation,” said Michael Cassidy, a criminal law professor at Boston College. “So, they shouldn’t be able to thwart a criminal investigation by leaving, and then just stay away long enough that the statute of limitations runs out.”
McCarrick was laicized — reduced to lay status — by the Vatican in 2019 after allegations of sexual abuse against adults and minors were substantiated. To date, there have been a number of civil lawsuits filed against McCarrick, mostly in New Jersey and New York. However, none of them was filed criminally.
Last week’s criminal charges filed against McCarrick in Massachusetts mark the first time that someone to reach the rank of Catholic cardinal in the U.S. has been criminally charged with a sexual crime against a minor.
The statute of limitations for indecent assault and battery on a person over 14 in Massachusetts is six years, beginning when the child turns 16. McCarrick needed to be in the state for that amount of time for the allegation’s statute of limitations to expire.
Mary Leary, a former Massachusetts child sex abuse prosecutor, told The Tablet that the statute of limitations “toll” in Massachusetts is a useful tool for prosecutors, especially in child sexual abuse cases, because “sometimes it requires people to be older before they have the strength and courage” to come forward with the allegation.
She acknowledged, however, that the 50-year gap between the criminal event and charge could make things more complicated in the courtroom.
“People’s memories fade. People’s ability to corroborate what they remember disappears. Witnesses become unavailable,” Leary said. “Those things come into play and make it harder to prove a case if you’re the government, and harder to defend the case if you’re the defendant.”
Regardless, Leary also notes the significance of the criminal charges against McCarrick. She said it’s the sign of a culture shift that focuses first on the protection of the child when allegations are made, which leads to accountability.
“That’s not to say we believe every child without question. What it is to say, though, is if a child has made an allegation or an adult has expressed a concern of observation the first reaction should be investigated, not dismissed, and I hope we’re moving in that direction,” Leary said. “Erring on the side of investigation, rather than erring on the side of dismissing an allegation, because someone has stature.”
McCarrick is scheduled to be arraigned in Massachusetts on Sept. 3. He denies the accusations, and his lawyer said they “look forward to addressing the case.”