With time running out, R.I. lawmakers work to extend statute of limitations for child abuse lawsuits
PROVIDENCE — Months after wrenching testimony from survivors of childhood sexual abuse, supporters of legislation to extend the statute of limitations for victims to seek recourse in civil lawsuits are still trying to find common ground.
As the days of the legislative session wane, the leaders in the House and Senate are working on a compromise on two versions of a bill that would allow victims to sue perpetrators and the institutions that enabled them.
House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey were working on the legislation.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was “proud of the legislation that the House had passed,” said spokesman Larry Berman, and placed the ball in the Senate’s court.
McCaffrey considered it to be a priority, said Senate spokesman Greg Pare.
But, as of Monday, there was still no compromise and thus, no vote scheduled.
Both bills would extend the statute of limitations from seven years to 35 years after a victim reaches adulthood. While they agree about the need for a longer statute of limitations, the bills’ sponsors disagree on the way to get there.
State Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-Narragansett, saw her bill sail through the House in late May. She tearfully dedicated the bill to her sister, Dr. Ann Hagan Webb, who’d testified in brutal detail about being sexually abused by a priest when she was a child.
However, McEntee opposes the Senate version, sponsored by Pawtucket Senator Donna M. Nesselbush.
She says it’s worded to repeal current law that allows victims to bring a lawsuit within seven years of when they discovered — or reasonably should have known — they had been abused. And, she believes the Senate version would actually shield institutions, such as the Catholic Church and other organizations, from lawsuits.
The Rhode Island Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, announced it supported the Senate bill, calling it “fair, just and equitable.”
During a hastily called rally last Thursday, McEntee vowed to walk away from the legislation and start over again next year, “with a vengeance.”
Victims are hoping that time is on their side.
This year, 38 states, including Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia have introduced legislation to extend the statute of limitations, said Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, which backs McEntee’s bill.
“This is not about trial attorneys. This is not about victims wanting compensation,” Robb said. “This is about exposing hidden predators. ... This is about all the institutions that are covering up to save the pad in their purse.”
In a recent interview, McEntee said she’d heard from dozens of people who’d told her about being molested as children — through the Catholic church, public schools, Boy Scouts and the Department of Children, Youth and Families.
Some couldn’t bring themselves to testify, she said, but they watched the proceedings and hoped for the bills to pass. “It’s a delicate balance for them,” McEntee said. “This is so emotional.”
Even so, she said, the victims are willing to walk away from the Senate bill and try again if they have to. “It’s a shame, and we’ve worked so hard,” McEntee said. “But I’m not giving up.”
Meanwhile, McEntee is hearing from victims who are in turmoil over the delay and the sense that for all they’d endured, the terrible secrets they’d shared, will not be enough.
“I’m furious,” McEntee said. “I’m completely disappointed and mad, and I don’t understand why it’s taking so long.”
It had taken everything for her sister to testify publicly with the graphic details of her abuse by her family’s parish priest. Dr. Webb said she’d done so, in hopes that her testimony would make a difference.
“So, this waiting and feeling helpless and on edge, it’s awful,” Webb said Monday. “For myself and other victims, it’s like being revictimized all over again. It’s the old familiar feeling that they have all the power.
She said she knows there’s nothing else she can do but wait, and leave the matter in the hands of the House and Senate leadership.
And if it fails, she said, “I feel wholeheartedly that the Senate sold out to the Catholic Church. There’s no other side to this moral argument, except money.”