Neronha to defend constitutionality of R.I. sex-abuse law

Providence Journal

April 30, 2020

By Brian Amaral

The state attorney general is stepping into a civil battle between men who say they were abused when they were boys by Rhode Island priests and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.

Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office said it would defend the constitutionality of a state law passed last year giving sexual abuse victims more time to sue perpetrators even if the deadline had passed under the old law. The diocese has argued the new law is unconstitutional.

The move is an about-face for the state’s top lawyer, who previously told the court that the office wouldn’t get involved in the litigation. It signals that the constitutionality of the statute will be a threshold question for the lawsuits filed in the wake of the legislation.

“We typically decline to intervene because these cases are usually resolved short of reaching the constitutional issue,” Kristy dosReis, a spokeswoman for Neronha’s office, said in an email Wednesday. “In this case, we initially advised the court that we would not immediately intervene, but left open the possibility of doing so in the future. We continued to closely follow the litigation and, when it became clear that the Superior Court was likely to reach the constitutional issue, we advised the court of our intention to file an amicus (friend of the court) brief.”

Three men — Philip Edwardo, Peter Cummings and Robert Houllahan — allege they were abused when they were boys by different Rhode Island priests. They are represented by Timothy J. Conlon, an attorney who has spent years representing priest abuse victims. They sued after the state last year passed legislation extending the deadline for sexual abuse lawsuits from seven years to 35 years after a victim’s 18th birthday.

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