R.I. lawmakers want to change deadline to sue over sexual abuse

Boston Globe

March 1, 2021

By Brian Amaral

“There’s been no justice for these people,” said state Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee. “Time alone should not be the reason to allow an injustice to occur.”

In 2019, Rhode Island gave victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits against their perpetrators, even if the abuse occurred decades ago.

But victims’ advocates say the state courts have too narrowly defined what a “perpetrator” is. So now some lawmakers are going back to the drawing board: They want people to be able to sue not just the person who actually committed the abuse, but the institutions that aided and abetted them, even if the deadline to do so had already run out under the old law.

This was their intention all along, and the new bill, introduced late last month, would make that perfectly clear, the lead sponsor said. The effort would expose the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence to more lawsuits and scrutiny over a dark chapter in the church’s history.

“There’s been no justice for these people,” said state Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, a Democrat of South Kingstown and an attorney. “Time alone should not be the reason to allow an injustice to occur.”

The 2019 legislation, called Annie’s Law, was named for McEntee’s sister, Ann Hagan Webb, who said she was sexually abused by a now-deceased West Warwick parish priest. Webb is now a therapist who helps fellow survivors.

Annie’s Law extended the deadline to sue over childhood sexual abuse — in legal terms, the statute of limitations — from seven years to 35 years after a victim’s 18th birthday.

For lawsuits against “perpetrators,” that new deadline could apply even if time had run out under older versions of the law. For lawsuits against defendants who weren’t considered perpetrators, victims could still sue within the new 35-year window — but only going forward, not if the time had already run out under the old law. At times in Rhode Island’s history, people have had just a few years to sue, even though it can take years before a victim comes forward.

Several men who said they were abused as boys by Diocese of Providence priests filed suit in 2019 and 2020, just before they turned 53, which is the new deadline. The old deadline for the three men had long since run out.

They argued that the diocese’s behavior was so egregious — actively hindering law enforcement investigations into predator priests, for example — that the church and its leaders had veered into criminal conduct. It was akin to serving as the getaway driver for a bank robber, they argued. Because of that, the institution could be held liable in civil court as a “perpetrator” of sexual abuse under the new deadline, just as much as the person who physically carried out the abuse could.

But Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel ruled in October that the diocese and its leaders weren’t “perpetrators.” The person who actually committed the abuse was. Vogel, at the diocese’s request, dismissed three lawsuits.

Key to Vogel’s decision was her conclusion that in writing the 2019 law, the legislature had actually changed the definition of “perpetrator” laid out in an older state Supreme Court case called Kelly v. Marcantonio.

McEntee said that’s not what the legislature did.

“I mean no disrespect, but I don’t agree with her at all on this decision,” McEntee said.

Those cases are still tied up in litigation. Three of the men have filed appeals to the state Supreme Court trying to revive their lawsuits, and several others had filed suits with similar factual and legal arguments before Vogel’s decision.

Advocates for victims are now also seeking this legislative fix, what they consider a clarification of their intent all along: to let victims of long-ago abuse seek redress against institutions like the diocese in court.

The legislation, introduced by McEntee and several House colleagues in late February, would expand the definition of “perpetrator” to include people and entities who aided and abetted sexual abuse, or who concealed it in a way that would make them criminally liable. If passed, the legislation would mean people could sue institutions like the diocese and its leaders within 35 years of their 18th birthday. State Sen. Alana DiMario, a freshman Democrat from Narragansett, said she’s introduced the legislation in her chamber, too.

Timothy Conlon, the lawyer representing the priest abuse victims, said the law is already clear: It does allow people to sue institutions within 35 years even if the old deadline had run out.

“But to the extent that the legislature is going to hammer that point home,” Conlon said, “I’m certainly in support of whatever it takes.”

The Diocese of Providence did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The court fights and attempted legislative amendment come as the state attorney general, Peter Neronha, continues a review into decades of priest abuse in Rhode Island. That review hasn’t finished. Last year Neronha’s office indicted John Petrocelli, a Rhode Island priest who authorities said sexually abused three boys between 1981 and 1990. Petrocelli pleaded not guilty.

Around the same time the state changed the law extending the deadline to file suits over child sexual abuse, the Diocese of Providence released a list of clergy it deemed “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors. The list now has 51 names on it.

“As Jesus as our witness, we will continue to do everything in our power to remove sexual abuse from the Church, and to bring healing and peace to all,” Bishop Thomas Tobin wrote at the time.

Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.