Providence diocese opposes bill expanding liability for child sex abuse

Catholic News Agency - EWTN [Denver CO]

March 26, 2021

The Diocese of Providence is opposing a bill that would allow survivors of child sex abuse to sue institutions which they claim enabled their abuse. 

In 2019, Rhode Island passed “Annie’s Law,” which extended the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases up to 35 years after the survivor’s 18th birthday. The law also allowed for adults to sue up to seven years after they re-discovered childhood sexual abuse, such as through therapy sessions. 

Judge Netti Vogel ruled in October 2020 that the law did not include institutions as responsible for abuse. Thus, after three men who claimed abuse by priests sued the Diocese of Providence, Judge Vogel threw out the lawsuits. 

The sponsor of “Annie’s Law” has now proposed an amendment allowing survivors to sue not only the perpetrators of their abuse, but also the institutions they believe enabled the abuse. Bill H5725 was introduced by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D) on Feb. 24.

“Annie’s Law” was named after Ann Hagan Webb, a sister of McEntee who was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a priest.

In response, Fr. Bernard Healey, a priest for the Diocese of Providence and the chief lobbyist for the diocese, expressed concerns that the new bill “complicates and impedes the administration of justice” and “does little to protect victims.” The diocese had also challenged the extension of the statute of limitations under “Annie’s Law,” in 2019.

“(The bill) subjects an institution that has made tremendous and demonstrable strides on issues surrounding child sexual abuse to liability stemming from activity that occurred literally decades ago,” said Healey in a written testimony during a remote hearing on Wednesday. 

The diocese told CNA on March 3 that it was “premature” at the time to comment on the proposed bill.

McEntee’s bill would name as a “perpetrator” of abuse not only the person who committed the crime, but institutions which are guilty of covering up the abuse. Similar bills have passed in other states, resulting in hundreds of lawsuits against institutions such as Catholic dioceses and the Boy Scouts.

The majority of the credibly accused priests or other clergy in the Diocese of Providence are deceased, according to the diocese. Several of the accused priests died before any allegation of misconduct. 

In the case of the three men whose lawsuits were dismissed by Judge Vogel, two of the three priests they accused of abuse have already died. The men appealed their dismissal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The case is now pending.

Insurance groups have also raised concerns that the new bill would potentially disrupt the state’s insurance market. 

The Diocese of Providence said that the reopening of old abuse cases under “Annie’s Law” – cases that had previously expired under the old law – was invalid.