Graphic and painful testimony on sex abuse
By Katherine Gregg
February 27, 2019
Some accounts were more graphic than others, including Ann Hagan Webb, the 66-year-old psychologist and sister of the Rhode Island lawmaker who introduced the legislation that was the focus of Tuesday night’s House Judiciary Committee hearing. Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee’s legislation would extend from 7 years to 35 the statute of limitations on the pursuit of legal claims against child molesters and any institution employing them that looked the other way.
PROVIDENCE — Grown-ups sexually molested when they were children — by their local parish priests, by sports coaches, family members, even by the notorious Larry Nassar — came to the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday night to tell their horrific stories, some for the second or third time.
And some were more graphic than others, including Ann Hagan Webb, the 66-year-old psychologist and sister of the Rhode Island lawmaker who introduced the legislation that was the focus of Tuesday night’s House Judiciary Committee hearing. Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee’s legislation would extend from 7 years to 35 the statute of limitations on the pursuit of legal claims against child molesters and any institution employing them that looked the other way.
“Usually we save ourselves, and you, the pain by using generalities like ‘child abuse’ or ‘molestation’ and leave it at that. It’s time to rip the scab off,” Webb told the lawmakers.
“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.”
Herbert “Hub” Brennan, a well-known physician from East Greenwich, recounted being molested, repeatedly, when he was a child, by the Rev. Brendan Smyth, a visiting priest, counselor and teacher at Our Lady of Mercy School and Church in East Greenwich, between 1965 and 1968. Smyth later returned to Ireland and pleaded guilty there to 141 counts of sexual abuse. He died in prison.
“Smyth would call from his rectory across the street from the school and have the nuns pull me out of my second or third grade classroom ... [where] I would wait until he entered and took me across the hall to the nurse’s office where he would abuse me,″ though sometimes, “as an altar boy, he would molest me in the dressing room next to the altar.”
Not all of the people who testified blamed clergy.
Sarah Klein came from Pennsylvania to talk about more than a decade of abuse by Larry Nassar, when she was a child gymnast in Lansing, Michigan, and he — not yet a doctor — was a volunteer athletic trainer in her gym. What began as a massage “quickly moved into penetration ... under the guise of medical treatment,″ said Klein, one of 300-plus “Nassar survivors″ who shared in a $500-million settlement with Michigan State University after the victims of time-barred complaints were given a 90-day window to sue.
Keith Smith came from New York City, where he now lives, to testify about his abduction by a stranger who lured him into his car and then raped and beat him in the woods off Sherman Avenue in his hometown of Lincoln when he was a 14-year-old boy walking home from hockey practice. He said a newspaper headline told him the man was found beaten to death in downtown Providence in 1975.
“This bill is not anti-Catholic,″ Smith told the lawmakers. “While [it] will hold priests accountable for the crimes they’ve committed against children, and the church accountable for the cover-up of those crimes, this bill holds accountable every criminal who has or will abuse kids regardless of who they are or where they work.”
A number of speakers nonetheless vented their anger at the Rev. Bernard Healey, the priest-lobbyist for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, who they blamed for undermining passage of an earlier version of McEntee’s bill on the last day of last year’s legislative session. While some speakers denounced Healey’s absence from Tuesday night’s hearing, victims’ lawyer Tim Conlon said of the church: “They have no moral authority and, frankly, no business weighing in on how it is that our society should deal with child predators.”
“Do I expect them to like what it is that you are considering? No, I do not,″ Conlon said. “I expect every institution that harbors and protects child predators not to like what you are considering doing.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence laid out its case for a massive rewrite of the legislation in a 15-page filing with the committee.
In its testimony, the arm of the church known as the Rhode Island Catholic Conference acknowledged “our past failures to protect young people,″ but also cited “serious flaws” in extending the statute of limitation to the point where an adult reaches 53 years of age — the proposed 35-year statute of limitation after reaching the age of majority at 18 — without any liability limit.
Among the “serious flaws,″ according to the group:
The legislation makes no distinction between “actual perpetrators” who committed intentional acts against the victims and the “non-perpetrators who are alleged to have committed unintentional negligence.”
It provides an “unconstitutional” three-year look-back period for the filing of claims, barred now by the current seven-year statute of limitations, allegedly at odds with how the diocese reads a 1996 Rhode Island Supreme Court opinion.
As such: “The bill is not targeted at abusers or abuse but at expanding opportunities to file monetary lawsuits against a limited set of third parties who may have served as employers or for whom an assailant may have volunteered.”
The group argues: While Massachusetts “provides victims an extended limitations period to bring claims, many defendants — like private schools, religious institutions and non-profit community organizations like the YMCA or Boy Scouts — have limited liability.... Massachusetts law provides for a $20,000 limitation on tort liability for non-profit organizations.”
“There is [also] inherent unfairness and risk of error in asking a jury in 2019 to decide whether actions taken in 1957 or 1967 reflected a lack of due care.... The understanding of child abuse in the mid-1960s was not remotely comparable to the understanding of the problem today.”
While the advocates for the legislation say “the bill is needed to ‘punish perpetrators’ of abuse,″ the diocesan group argues, that opportunity already exists since “Rhode Island has no criminal statutes of limitations for first- and second-degree child molestation.”
This “bill is focused on expanding opportunities to file monetary suits against non-perpetrators.”