Church sex-abuse victims’ claims against bishop time-barred

Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly [Boston, MA]

July 28, 2023

By Eric T. Berkman

35-year limitations period not retroactive for cases brought vs. ‘non-perpetrators’

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has found that lawsuits brought by three men accusing officials of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence of protecting priests who abused them as children were barred by the three-year statute of limitations for personal injury.

The plaintiffs, who all allege that they were abused by priests in the 1970s and early 1980s, claim the bishop at the time, Louis Gelineau, and other authorities and entities within the diocese knew the priests were pedophiles and, among other things, declined to warn families while moving offending priests to new parishes.

A Superior Court judge dismissed their claims as time-barred, finding that  G.L.§9-1-51, which created a 35-year statute of limitations for child sex-abuse lawsuits, did not apply retroactively to lawsuits brought against “non-perpetrator” defendants who did not engage in or aid and abet the actual abuse.

The Supreme Court affirmed.

“The allegations made against these defendants … are appalling, but the claims asserted fall squarely within non-perpetrator conduct,” Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg wrote for the court. “[T]here are no allegations of actual childhood sexual abuse against these defendants, or of conduct that ‘actually aids and assists in the commission of the criminal act to the degree that he or she would be subject to prosecution under [the state sexual assault statute] as a principal.’”

The 33-page decision is Houllahan, et al. v. Gelineau, et al., Lawyers Weekly No. 60-055-23. The full text of the ruling can be found here.

Neither plaintiffs’ counsel Timothy J. Conlon of Providence nor defense counsel Howard A. Merten Jr., also of Providence, responded to requests for comment.

Alleged cover-up

Plaintiff Robert Houllahan, born in the late 1960s, became acquainted as a child with Normand Demers, a priest at St. Joseph’s Church in Providence.

Houllahan claims that in 1976 Demers and another man molested him in Demers’ private quarters above the parish rectory.

The plaintiff, who claims he was unable to speak of his abuse for more than 20 years, also asserted that by the late 1970s church officials knew Demers was bringing boys from Central America for purposes of sexual molestation.

He further alleges that after Demers was arrested in Haiti in 1989 when the director of a Haitian orphanage learned he was molesting boys there, Gelineau, through auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Angell, promised Demers would be investigated, prosecuted and punished in Rhode Island if the director helped get the charges dismissed. Yet upon Demers’ return, the defendants allegedly returned him to service in a parish.

The second plaintiff, Peter Cummings, was born in 1966. As a student at a Catholic elementary school in Providence that he attended from ages 9 to 13, he got to know priest John Petrocelli, who allegedly used his position to initiate a relationship with Cummings.

According to Cummings, Petrocelli sexually assaulted him on a frequent basis while he was in grade school. In 1992, more than a decade after the events in question, Cummings, hospitalized after a severe psychological episode, was finally able to speak about the alleged abuse and alerted the diocese.

While offering to assist with Cummings’ treatment, Angell allegedly failed to acknowledge Petrocelli’s history of misconduct, including a complaint recorded just months earlier.

Philip Edwardo, the third plaintiff, also born in 1966, alleges that beginning in 1977 or 1978, when he was an altar boy at St. Anthony Church in North Providence, pastor Philip Magaldi — taking advantage of Edwardo’s unstable family life — encouraged him to spend his spare time at the rectory and use a spare bedroom there.

Magaldi allegedly began plying Edwardo with alcohol and gifts and molested him hundreds of times between 1978 and 1983.

Edwardo also alleges that another priest beat him at Magaldi’s behest when he tried to withdraw from the interactions. He further alleges that once he was able to tell Magaldi to stop the abuse, Magaldi told Edwardo’s father he was stealing money from the church.

Like the other plaintiffs, Edwardo was allegedly unable to speak of the abuse for approximately 20 years, until he contacted the bishop’s office and provided a detailed statement to an official in the office of compliance.

According to the plaintiffs, who each filed suit in Superior Court against Gelineau; the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence, the corporate entity through which Gelineau and the diocese conducted business; and others, the defendants knew the priests were abusing minors but failed to warn them or their parents of practices commonly used by child predators, including swimming trips and outings as an opportunity to abuse children.

The plaintiffs also alleged a pattern of conduct that included falsely assuring others that offending conduct would be addressed; failing to properly investigate complaints; suppressing the results of investigations; reassigning offending priests to new parishes; and falsely representing that they would assist in criminal investigation and prosecution of priests accused of abuse.

The defendants moved to dismiss, contending that the claims were barred by the three-year statute of limitations for personal injury, which applied to claims of sexual abuse at the time of the alleged incidents.

Specifically, the defendants claimed that because they were not “perpetrators” under §9-1-51, which created a 35-year retroactive statute of limitations for actual perpetrators, their actions were time-barred.

Relying on the Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Kelly v. Marcantonio, in which the court recognized that someone who aided and assisted in childhood sexual abuse to the degree that he or she could be subject to prosecution under the sexual assault statute was considered a “perpetrator” defendant, the plaintiffs countered that the defendants here should be deemed perpetrators, bringing the case under the retroactive 35-year limitations period.

But Judge Netti C. Vogel ruled that the three-year statute applied because the defendants, even if they could be criminally charged for their conduct, were “non-perpetrators” since the General Assembly meant to limit the term “perpetrator” to the actual abuser.

The plaintiffs appealed.

Non-perpetrators for limitations purposes

The Supreme Court affirmed.

“The plaintiffs allege that the trial justice erred in dismissing their complaints by unambiguously categorizing defendants as non-perpetrator defendants, even though, plaintiffs contend, they could be found criminally responsible for the sexual abuse committed by the offending priests,” Goldberg wrote. “The plaintiffs further argue that defendants are criminally responsible as perpetrators of the crimes committed against plaintiffs, based on their own conduct. We disagree.”

Though the court appreciated the pain and horror the plaintiffs suffered as innocent children, Goldberg continued, “when the General Assembly amended §9-1-51, the members deliberately drew a clear dichotomy between perpetrator and non-perpetrator defendants for retroactive application of the statute of limitations; its legislative history gives rise to this conclusion.”

Meanwhile, the court found that the defendants did not qualify as “aiders and abettors” in a way that would render them perpetrator defendants.

“In order for defendants to be found to be aiders and abettors, the evidence must establish that defendants knowingly, willfully, and intentionally sought, through their conduct, to accomplish the sexual abuse of these children by these priests,” Goldberg stated. “Assuming the facts as alleged as true, there is nothing in the record before us that would lead us to reach this conclusion.”

Instead, she said, the evidence suggested that the defendants’ motivation “although deplorable in its own right” was for selfish purposes of self-preservation.

“We therefore conclude that defendants cannot be found culpable as aiders and abettors,” Goldberg said.

Houllahan, et al. v. Gelineau, et al.

THE ISSUE   Were lawsuits brought by plaintiffs alleging that officials of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence protected priests who abused them as children barred by the three-year statute of limitations for personal injury?

DECISION     Yes (Rhode Island Supreme Court)

LAWYERS    Timothy J. Conlon of Burns & Levinson, Providence (plaintiffs)

Howard A. Merten Jr. of Partridge, Snow & Hahn, Providence (defense)