Rhode Island lawmakers pass bill giving sexual abuse victims 35 years to bring lawsuits

The Boston Globe

June 26, 2019

By Amanda Milkovits

The Rhode Island General Assembly overwhelmingly passed legislation on Wednesday to give victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to sue perpetrators and hold institutions and public entities accountable.

The legislation heads to the desk of Governor Gina Raimondo, who is expected to sign it into law.

It extends the statute of limitations to 35 years after victims reach adulthood.

Victims will have 35 years to bring lawsuits against individual perpetrators, regardless of whether the case had been “time-barred” under previous laws. The bill also keeps state law allowing victims to file suits within seven years of “discovering” they’d been abused.

They will also have 35 years to bring lawsuits against institutions and organizations, as well as the state, municipalities and quasi-public agencies. Nesslebush said she insisted on adding those agencies, after seeing the widespread abuse by Jerry Sandusky at Penn State and Larry Nassar at Michigan State University.

However, the 35-year extension is prospective only against institutions, except under the seven-year “discovery rule.”

The bill caps a years-long battle brought by survivors of sexual abuse, and in the waning days of this session, appeared that the effort was going to fail when the House and Senate brought forward conflicting bills.

Then Wednesday afternoon, Senator Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, suddenly announced a compromise with the “best parts” of her bill and the bill sponsored by Narragansett Representative Carol Hagan McEntee.

The legislators didn’t waste time. Within two hours, the compromise legislation flew through the Senate Judiciary Committee, unanimously passed the Senate to applause, and then sailed through the House, 70 to 1. (Representative Brian C. Newberry, R-North Smithfield, was the only nay.)

The governor said Wednesday evening that she intended to sign it into law.

“Abuse of any kind cannot be tolerated anywhere. As a mother, I find reports of child abuse particularly disturbing,” Raimondo said in a statement. “I’ve long supported efforts to hold abusers accountable and ensure that victims are given the time needed to come forward.”

The sudden revival of the bill had surprised McEntee, as well as some of the victims who had testified on the legislation and admitted losing hope as time ran down.

Nesselbush praised their courage and singled out two victims who were invited to the announcement and the votes — McEntee’s sister Dr. Ann Hagan Webb, who’d testified about being molested by the family’s parish priest, and Jim Scanlon, whose accusations against a priest at Boston College High School were part of the movie “Spotlight.”

Scanlon trembled a little after the announcement. “I’m surprised, pleasantly surprised,” he said.

This was for the victims, who could finally get justice, Scanlon said.

In short, victims will be able to sue their alleged abusers, as well as institutions such as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and other “youth-serving” organizations.

Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, said the bill was a move in the right direction, but there was still more work needed. “Unfortunately, it still allows institutions to conceal their horrific acts of child abuse and cover-up, and hence many victims are left without any justice,” she said in a statement.

However, the lobbying arm of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence announced it supported the bill. “It is now time for the process of achieving justice and healing for victims to move forward,” the Rhode Island Catholic Conference said in a statement.

McEntee had sponsored the bill in honor of her sister, Dr. Ann Hagan Webb, who had testified in despairing details about being molested starting when she was five.

The two sisters hugged each other after the bill passed the Senate. They beamed at each other across the House floor as the vote came through.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who’d backed the legislation, congratulated Webb. Noting that Wednesday was her birthday, he added, “I don’t believe in coincidences,” and wished her a happy birthday.

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