PROVIDENCE — A proposal to change state law governing how long a person has to bring a claim of abuse was addressed during a lengthy, emotional hearing Tuesday night at the State House before the House Judiciary Committee. Introduced by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, the legislation would make dramatic changes to current state law.
“The Church is deeply and wholeheartedly committed to protecting children from the crime of sexual abuse, providing justice and healing for innocent and suffering victims, and ensuring measures to prevent sexual abuse,” Father Bernard Healey told the committee in written testimony on behalf of the R.I. Catholic Conference.
As proposed, the bill significantly expands the statute of limitations for bringing claims alleging injuries stemming due to childhood sexual abuse from the current seven years to 35 years — or more, in some cases. It would also retroactively revive claims that had already expired under the law, regardless of when the alleged conduct occurred.
The 35-year period would begin when a victim turns 18, permitting a victim to sue until age 53. The bill also keeps the additional seven-year period that begins when a victim discovers or reasonably should have discovered the injury or condition caused by the abuse. This provision would, in some cases, allow lawsuits indefinitely, even after a person turns 53, depending on when a victim recovered old memories.
Also included in the bill is a three-year window, or “look back” provision, during which individuals whose claims have already expired would be able to file lawsuits. This provision would be unique among the states for its broad reach. It was highlighted during the hearing as unconstitutional and a flaw that would likely cause the bill, if passed, to be overturned in court.
The legislation would also broaden the scope of potential defendants while applying the extended 35-year period not just to the assailant, but also to third parties for whom the assailant may have worked or volunteered.
Father Healey told the committee that the “look back” provision might well prevent victims from achieving justice and healing, rather than helping.
“The Rhode Island Catholic Conference must express its serious reservations regarding this piece of legislation, however, as it fails to serve the interests of justice and ensure the protection of all victims in a way that is legally sound,” he said.
“We would respectfully ask that the General Assembly address the serious flaws in this legislation and then pass a bill,” Father Healey added.
Cary Silverman, a national expert on tort law, testified that “reviving time barred claims sets a troubling precedent,” before explaining at length “why retroactive changes to such laws are often viewed as unsound policy by legislatures and unconstitutional by courts.” He urged the committee to make any changes, including lengthening the statute of limitations, to be “prospective only.”
“Sexual abuse against a child is intolerable and should be punished, both through criminal prosecution and civil claims,” said Silverman. “I commend the committee for considering steps to further protect victims of sexual abuse.”
Silverman added, however, that “[aside] from the sound public policy reasons for not reviving time-barred claims, the Rhode Island Supreme Court is likely to find this approach unconstitutional. As drafted, the law is certain to face a constitutional challenge and likely to be found invalid.”
The Defense Council of Rhode Island, a state association of attorneys, also raised concerns about the legality of the “look back” provision. “A civil litigant is entitled to a fair hearing,” the group said in written testimony. Rep. McEntee’s bill would turn “our civil justice system on its head.”
In his testimony Father Healey also described for the committee the steps taken by the Diocese of Providence as part of its quarter-century commitment to safety, justice and healing. The diocese established the Office of Compliance in 1993, a decade before the Boston Globe uncovered the crisis in Massachusetts, and nearly 10 years before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted its Charter for the Protection of Young People.
This office, currently run by a retired 23-year veteran of the Rhode Island State Police, is tasked with investigating claims and providing a safe environment for young people. It also conducts an average of 4,000 criminal background checks and administers Safe Environment Training to 3,500 people per year.
The office has also fully reported all allegations of abuse to law enforcement for more than 20 years — regardless of their credibility. In 2016, the diocese expanded this voluntary protocol to share all allegations of abuse with the Attorney General’s Office, as well. Both protocols are above and beyond what is required by law.
“As a priest and a Catholic, I wish I could turn back the clock on the terrible things that have happened in the past, but I can’t,” Father Healey testified. “I am somewhat heartened, however, by the knowledge that over the last 25 years the Diocese of Providence has established a commitment to safety, justice and healing that seeks to atone for the past and protect our young people in the future.”
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