Providence Journal [Providence RI]
February 10, 2022
By Katherine Gregg
The decade of inaction that went by after the first of Smithfield priest Francis C. Santilli’s alleged victims came forward has fueled a renewed drive to hold institutions — including the Catholic Church — legally liable for the sexual abuse of children.
On Tuesday, Rep. Carol McEntee introduced the latest version of a bill to eliminate the time limit on lawsuits by victims of childhood sex abuse.
And not for the first time, McEntee is seeking to remove a barrier to the filing of lawsuits against people and institutions who enabled and protected child sexual abusers by looking the other way or concealing their crimes.
The battle is personal for McEntee, D-South Kingstown.
She grew up in a devout Catholic home and learned years later that her older sister, Ann, had been sexually molested, repeatedly, by their now-deceased parish priest in West Warwick over seven years that began in 1957, when Ann was 5 years old.
Her sister, Ann Hagan Webb, a psychologist now in her late 60s, was one of several victims of priests and other trusted elders, including staff members at the elite St. George’s School in Middletown, who have told their stories to state lawmakers year after year.
Investigating allegations: Suspended Smithfield priest had faced previous allegations of sexual abuse
In 2019, they made some headway.
The new law extended from seven to 35 years the length of time a victim of childhood sexual abuse has to sue after reaching adulthood. That gave a victim until age 53 to sue an abuser or institution.
Against institutions, however, the new 35-year rule was prospective only, except in cases where the victims did not “discover” an injury or condition caused by sexual abuse they suffered as children. In those cases, they would have seven years from the time they discovered the connection to sue.
The only group publicly lauding this “compromise” — in light of the barriers posed by past court decisions on use of repressed memories — was an arm of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.
In Smithfield: Priest on leave after sexual-assault allegation
The Rhode Island Catholic Conference issued a statement supporting the legislation that said, it “protects all victims of sexual abuse including those children harmed by their contact with public entities and who will now be able to seek redress under this bill. It is now time for the process of achieving justice and healing for victims to move forward.”
McEntee has pushed hard every year since to remove the barriers to victims seeking civil damages from institutions that shielded child molesters, as she believes happened in the case of suspended priest Santilli, removed now as pastor at St. Philip Parish in Smithfield.
After his suspension, it came to light that at least two other men had told church officials as early as 2012 that the priest had molested them when they were boys.
Church officials chose not to believe his report, one of those men, Dennis Laprade, 52, of North Providence, told The Journal last week.
Last week, however, the Diocese of Providence announced that it had placed Santilli on administrative leave following a more recent allegation that he sexually abused a minor sometime around 1979 or 1980.
In a statement, the diocese said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin had accepted Santilli’s resignation as pastor of St. Philip Parish and that the diocese is “cooperating fully with law enforcement.”
“Allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, even if they occurred decades ago, always must be taken seriously,” the bishop said in his statement.
2019 Political Scene:Lawmaker details torment of her sister’s molestation
“I introduced this bill to eliminate all statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse because predators are still being institutionally protected and too many victims are still without justice,” McEntee told The Journal on Wednesday.
“The [recent] removal of Frank Santilli, a priest at St. Philip’s in Smithfield, even after numerous complaints had been made against him over the years, shows that victims still must wade through the cover up first to achieve justice.
“He was not on the [Diocese’s] ‘credibly accused list’ and was allowed to continue working with the public and children even though he had been identified as a predator. This is beyond unacceptable.
“These monsters, and the institutions that protect them, would no longer be able to use the defense of the passage of time to evade justice if this bill is passed,” McEntee said.
The diocese opted not to comment Wednesday on the latest version of McEntee’s bill, which has 25 co-sponsors including the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Robert Craven.
Responding to inquiries last week, Attorney General Peter Neronha said that his office had determined that a criminal prosecution of Santilli wasn’t possible because the relevant statute of limitations has expired.
McEntee’s bill — H 7409 —deals with the window for filing civil actions for the recovery of damages for injuries suffered as a result of sexual abuse.