RI lawmaker renews fight to remove statute of limitations on child sexual-abuse lawsuits

Katherine Gregg
The Providence Journal
March 16
  • Rep. Carol McEntee's new bill would totally remove time limit on filing suit for child sex abuse by clergy
  • Alleged victims rallies in support of the bill
  • RI Catholic Church, ACLU and insurance lobby oppose bill
  • Case working through courts would determine if RI Diocese was a 'perpetrator' of abuse

PROVIDENCE – The war has begun anew over legal responsibility – and more specifically, who should be made to pay – for the sexual abuse of children, with the Rhode Island Catholic Church, the state's insurance lobby and the ACLU on one side and alleged victims on the other.

A legal challenge to the state's current law is still winding its way through state court, but Rep. Carol McEntee has revived her campaign for the total repeal of the current time limit on the filing of lawsuits against pedophiles and the institutions that shielded them.

And once again, McEntee's sister, Ann Hagan-Webb, a licensed psychologist who specializes in work with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, has told an abridged version of the story she has told Rhode Island lawmakers year after year, for six years.

"I was sexually abused by a Catholic priest ... Kindergarten through 7th grade, in West Warwick in the 50's and 60's. It ended more than 50 years ago. I am recovered from the original abuse." But not entirely.

"Nightmares during Lent and some minor PTSD symptoms ... are all that remain. I hope I speak for so many who cannot," said Webb who is now in her 60's.

More:Can the Diocese of Providence be sued over clergy sexual abuse? Appeal argues it was a perpetrator

Rep. Carol McEntee, upon filing similar legislation in 2019.
Alleged victims share stories of abuse
Other alleged victims also wrote the lawmakers, including Jeffrey Thomas, who identified himself as a 62-year-old "survivor of clergy abuse" by the Rev. Brendan Smyth, an Irish priest who was at Our Lady of Mercy Church in East Greenwich from 1965 to 1968. Smyth returned to Ireland and pleaded guilty to 141 counts of sexual abuse. He died in prison in 1997.

In his letter, Thomas recounted the crushing after-effects on his adult life and his failed attempt to sue in 2008. And he alleged "the Catholic Church had full knowledge of Brendan Smyth’s pedophilia prior to sending him toOur Lady of Mercy Parish and School in East Greenwich Rhode Island."

Michelle Ross talked about the devastating effect of molestation on her now deceased brother, David Ross.

More on credibly accused priests:Providence Diocese's full list of credibly accused clergy, with assignments

Catholic Church, ACLU again oppose the bills
The Rev. Bernard Healey, representing the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, is once again leading the opposition, raising the same arguments he has raised year after year against any move that would allow victims of alleged sex abuse by clergy to seek damages for decades-old alleged crimes.

In his own letter to the lawmakers, he said: "Statute of limitations ... enables claims to be investigated and decided fairly, while facts are fresh, memories are vivid, and relevant evidence is still available ... [while] ensuring that long-past actions will not be judged by contemporary standards."

Echoing his arguments, the ACLU of Rhode Island wrote: "Memories fade, and exculpatory evidence that a person has no chance to recover ceases to exist. To ask a person to defend him or herself against a lawsuit like this fifty years or more after the fact imposes enormous challenges."

Insurance industry cautions lawmakers, referencing current court case
The lead State House lobbyist for the insurance industry, Francis O'Brien assured legislators the members of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association "abhor violence against children," "believe perpetrators must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law" and would support "legislation that strengthens criminal sanctions against perpetrators of child sexual abuse."

But he strongly cautioned the lawmakers against using their powers to "interfere in a case and controversy currently before the Rhode Island Supreme Court," and doing so in a way that "could have a disruptive impact on Rhode Island’s insurance market."

More on the issue:At the State House, another emotional debate over time limit on sex-abuse claims

He referenced an appeal pending in the state Supreme Court of an earlier judge's decision on the reach of a 2019 law that extended the deadline for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits against those who abused them, even if the abuse took place outside of the statute of limitations.

The new law extended the deadline from seven years to 35 years after the victim's 18th birthday (or age 53). But it allowed a retroactive extension of that deadline only if they were suing a “perpetrator” — not a “non-perpetrator."

In 2020, Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel in 2020 dismissed three priest-abuse lawsuits against the diocese and its leaders, finding that the law defined “perpetrator” as the person who committed the abuse.

"Non-perpetrators" were those who may have caused or contributed to the abuse – maybe even committed a crime in doing so – but they couldn’t be sued retroactively under the law, Vogel determined. The three alleged victims appealed to the high court, which heard arguments in early February on whether the Diocese of Providence as an institution can be defined as a “perpetrator” of child sexual abuse.

The appeal of her decision is pending.

"For reasons too numerous to enunciate, the General Assembly should not take the pen out of the handsof the court – especially in a situation where arguments have been heard and the parties are awaiting adecision" O'Brien argued, saying instead that lawmakers should react to the decision of the court and change any provision of the law the legislature "believes the [court] has misinterpreted or misapplied."

To do otherwise would expose insurers to currently "time-barred claims...in a wide array of situations in which adults and children interact, from schools to medical professionals to sports clubs to churches to foster care...[for which] exposures were never anticipated, premiums were never charged, and reserves were never set by insurers."

Anticipating every argument, Webb told lawmakers during the arguments for the 2019 "Annie's Law" passed by state lawmakers in her name, was "a compromise...[that] has failed to hold the Big Culprits accountable."

"RI is in dark ages!," she wrote, recounting the moves by other New England states - Maine, Vermont, Connecticut - to eliminate their civil statute of limitations on child sex abuse or create what she called a "revival window."

This story replaces an earlier version that erroneously referred to clergy in the headline.

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