R.I. Lawmakers Mull Ending Statute of Limitations on Lawsuits against Sexual Predators
By Katherine Gregg
March 30, 2018
Abuse victims gave wrenching accounts at a House hearing on the bill introduced by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, whose legislation was motivated by her own sister’s repeated abuse as a child by their family’s parish priest.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A Rhode Island lawmaker has ripped the scab off the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal with legislation born out of her older sister’s repeated abuse, as a child, by their family’s parish priest.
Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee’s legislation would remove the seven-year statute of limitations on the pursuit of legal claims against perpetrators of sex abuse. The statute of limitations derailed a lawsuit by two former victims of an infamous pedophile priest in 2016.
A late-night hearing on her bill earlier this week drew pained personal recollections from her sister, now a 65-year-old psychologist; a well-known doctor talking about his abuse publicly for the first time; and Jim Scanlan, a R.I. man whose account of sex-abuse by a Boston College High School priest in the late 1970s figured in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight.”
But the tales of abuse by trusted elders were not limited to the Catholic Church. Two women describing themselves as victims of sex-abuse scandals reaching back to the 1970s at St. George’s School in Middletown and the Gordon School in East Providence also conveyed their support for the bill, which has no restrictions on how far back the cases might reach.
On Tuesday night, holding a photograph of herself as she looked in kindergarten, the lawmaker’s sister, Ann Hagan Webb, told lawmakers how long it took not just to remember, but to even talk about it. “I was too fragile,” she said.
“It was 30 years after the fact before my abuse found its way to my consciousness,” echoed Dr. Herbert J. “Hub” Brennan, 60, of East Greenwich. “Another 15 years before I had the courage to seek help.”
He said the priest at Our Lady of Mercy Church who abused him “would call from his rectory across the street and have the nuns pull me out of my second- or third-grade class.”
Then, “I would wait in the principal’s office until he entered and took me across the hall to the nurse’s office, where he would close the door and do what such monsters do to innocent children ... sworn to silence with the literal fear of God and eternal damnation held over my head.”
Webb said Msgr. Anthony DeAngelis — now dead — repeatedly molested her in the rectory of Sacred Heart Church in West Warwick from the time she was 5 until she was 12, but, “I totally repressed the memory of my abuse until I was 40 ... when my children were about the age I was when it began.”
“Sexual abuse crimes are the only crimes we know that leave the victims with a profound sense of shame,” Webb told the lawmakers. “That shame keeps children from telling their parents. It keeps people from admitting that it happened ... for years, and more commonly decades.”
“Today, I could handle the rigors of a lawsuit, 25 years past recalling it and 53 years since the sexual abuse stopped,” Webb said. When she first recalled the abuse, she said, “I was in no emotional state to bring a lawsuit forward. ... In fact, most of that decade [the 1990s] I was in therapy two to three times a week.
Webb, now 65 and working as a psychologist with other adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, said the Catholic Church reimbursed $12,500 of the cost of her therapy, but to receive the help — which she had read in The Journal that the Diocese of Providence was offering — she had to sign away her own right to sue.
But she said money is not a reason for repealing the statute of limitations on civil suits. A more compelling reason: “For most abuse victims it is the only chance for obtaining any justice,” for making the perpetrators face ramifications” and publicly naming them so they cannot simply move on to another child in another school.
“Why am I telling you this?” echoed Brennan. ”’Personally, I want nothing. I need nothing. ... It is time for me to ... do what I can to help young children at risk of abuse.”
In his testimony, he named his abuser: the Rev. Brendan Smyth, now deceased, who served as visiting priest, counselor and teacher at Our Lady of Mercy School and Church in East Greenwich for three years, between 1965 to 1968, when Brennan was between 8 and 11 years old. Smyth later returned to Ireland and pleaded guilty there to 141 counts of sexual abuse. He died in prison in Ireland in 1997.
“Mr. Chairman, members of the committee and to all of you in this room, let me tell you all something this evening that I have never said publicly,” Brennan said Tuesday night. “I was raped and sexually assaulted by Brendan Smyth.”
Asking the lawmakers to put their own religious loyalties aside, Brennan said: “Nowhere in the lessons or teachings of Jesus Christ did he ever say that it is OK for men in collars to rape kids.”
No one spoke out publicly in opposition to the bill.
Asked where the church stood, Carolyn Cronin, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Providence, said: “I can check on this for you next week. Today is Good Friday and we are in the final days of Holy Week preparing for Easter Sunday.”
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he found his own thinking about the bill affected by the “very compelling” written testimony that McEntee’s sister gave the committee.
“It moved me,” he said.
“It will be something that we give attention to,” he said. “The issue will get the consideration that it absolutely deserves [from] the House of Representatives.”
Current law allows civil suits for damages for injuries suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse within seven years of the alleged act or seven years from “the time the victim discovered or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or condition was caused by the act.”
“It is unfortunate that the bill ... is needed in our society, because it signals that not only are our children being sexually victimized, but even more sadly, many of these victims will never have their day in court to face their abusers and demand accountability for the vicious childhood assaults that have haunted their lives — oftentimes for decades,” McEntee told colleagues.
If lifting the statute of limitations is a step too far for some of her colleagues, the lawmaker noted that Massachusetts allows lawsuits 35 years after the alleged sexual abuse of a minor, and Connecticut 30 years after the alleged victim reaches adulthood.