Church, insurers oppose new effort to extend deadline for sex-abuse lawsuits

Providence Journal [Providence RI]

March 24, 2021

By Katherine Gregg

The Rhode Island Catholic church and the state’s insurance lobby are once again leading the charge against legislative efforts to extend the deadline for  lawsuits by victims of childhood sex abuse.

This year, the effort focuses on “time-barred” lawsuits against people and institutions who enabled and protected abusers by looking the other way or concealing their crimes. 

In written testimony, the chief lobbyist for the Providence Diocese, the Rev. Bernard Healey, voiced these “serious concerns” about the legislation headed for a House hearing on Wednesday night:

“It complicates and impedes the administration of justice … does little to protect victims, and subjects an institution that has made tremendous and demonstrable strides on the issues surrounding child sexual abuse to liability stemming from activity that occurred literally decades ago.”

“Guess what?” responded state Rep. Carol McEntee responded during a telephone interview on Wednesday. “These victims are still alive and they are still suffering and the church still lawyers up, like David and Goliath.” 

“I don’t see why they are objecting … [unless] they knew and they concealed,” McEntee said Wednesday.  

McEntee’s sister, Ann Hagan Webb, has said she was sexually abused for years — starting when she was 5 years old and in kindergarten at Sacred Heart elementary school — by a now-deceased West Warwick parish priest.

She has told her story to R.I. lawmakers more than once in graphic detail.

“He’s in a priest’s robe, raping me with crucifix. … I remember the gross look of his genitals close to my face. … I remember choking and gagging … I remember my arm hurting from the repetitive movement of manually bringing him to climax … I remember the sound of the rosary beads as one of the sisters brought me over to the church to meet him.”

She was poised Wednesday to tell her story again.

Ann Hagan Webb, left, has told her story to R.I. lawmakers more than once in graphic detail, and on Wednesday planned to do so again. Steve Szydlowski, The Providence Journal
Ann Hagan Webb, left, has told her story to R.I. lawmakers more than once in graphic detail, and on Wednesday planned to do so again. Steve Szydlowski, The Providence Journal

The current issue:

In 2019, Rhode Island lawmakers extended the deadline for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits against the predators who abused them, even if the abuse took place decades ago. 

The new law extended the deadline from seven to 35 years after the victim’s 18th birthday.

In October 2020, a state judge dismissed three priest-abuse lawsuits against the leaders of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. The case is currently on appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The three men, who said they were sexually abused by Rhode Island priests when they were boys, said that the conduct of diocesan leaders was so egregious — actively thwarting criminal investigations, for example — that it rose to a criminal level.

They were akin to aiders and abettors of the abuse, they argued.

But Superior Court Judge Netti Vogel concluded the new law did not go that far.

The “perpetrators” were the people who actually committed the “hideous and appalling” abuse. 

The “non-perpetrators” may have caused or contributed to the abuse, and may have even done so in a way that could open them up to criminal charges, but under the civil law, they were “non-perpetrators,” who couldn’t be sued retroactively, she ruled.

The plaintiffs were Philip Edwardo, Peter Cummings and Robert Houllahan. The accused priests — Philip Magaldi, John Petrocelli and Normand Demers — were included in the diocese’s list of credibly accused clergy.  Demers and Magaldi are dead.

McEntee’s bill seeks to retroactively extend the definition of “perpetrator” in the state law from anyone who sexually abuses a child to “any person or entity” that aids and abets the abuser or “assists in concealment of the sexual abuse or exploitation of a child.”

In the testimony he submitted for the diocese, Healey said statutes of limitations have a purpose: “to enable claims to be investigated and decided fairly, while facts are fresh, memories are vivid, and relevant evidence is still available.”

“There is inherent unfairness and risk of error in asking a jury in 2021 to decide whether actions taken in 1957 or 1967 reflected a lack of due care. … Jurors are the product of their time,” he wrote.

Francis C. O’Brien, vice president of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, objected to the bill on grounds it seeks to “interfere” in a case pending before the Supreme Court and does not adequately consider the potentially disruptive impact on Rhode Island’s insurance market.

Writing on behalf of the American Tort Reform Association, Cary Silverman questioned the constitutionality of reviving “time-barred claims” against “nonprofit organizations, businesses, schools, camps, or other organizations whose employees or volunteers engaged in criminal conduct.”

But the majority of the 14 signed up to testify remotely on the bill support it, according to a House spokesman, including McEntee’s sister for whom the 2019 law was named: “Annie’s Law.” 

Others signaling their support in advance included: Hilary Levey Friedman, in her role as president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women; Peg Langhammer, executive director of Day One; Marci Hamilton and Kathryn Rob of CHILD USA and state Treasurer Seth Magaziner.

An anticipated candidate for governor next year, Magaziner wrote: “Survivors of child sexual abuse deserve recourse against the individuals who abused them and the institutions that covered it up.”