PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In a surprise move on the third-to-last day of the legislative session, both the Senate and House passed a revised version of a bill to extend the civil statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse victims.
The bill extends the statute of limitations to 35 years and retains a key provision about repressed memory that was important to sex abuse survivors who had been pushing for the measure.
“We are protecting victims and children,” said Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown. “We’re giving them their day in court.”
She had fought for the bill in honor of her sister, Dr. Ann Hagan Webb, who was abused by a priest as a child. She said Wednesday is Ann’s birthday.
“This is Annie’s bill,” McEntee said, emotional ahead of the House floor vote. “Please pass this bill, it is absolutely the right thing to do.”
The House voted in favor, 70-1. The sole dissenter was Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield.
“This helps us to protect our kids and grandkids today,” said Jim Scanlon, a local survivor of clergy sex abuse who was featured in the movie “Spotlight.” He said he hopes the bill motivates survivors to come forward.
“It’s unbelievably hard to come forward and with some sort of motivation, the ability to come forward under the extension of the statute of limitations law including the seven-year recovery might provide that motivation to come out from the shadows,” he said.
The current statute of limitations for civil suits is seven years after the victim turns 18.
The legislation, sponsored on the Senate side by Pawtucket Democrat Donna Nesselbush, had been in limbo after the House and Senate passed different versions earlier this year, and sex abuse survivors were not on board with the Senate version.
That version of the bill, unacceptable to both McEntee and the survivors, had cut out a provision that allowed a victim who remembered their childhood abuse later in life to have seven years to bring a civil action against the perpetrator or institution.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Nesselbush and Senate leadership announced they would pass the McEntee bill, with the seven-year discovery rule intact, and add additional language to allow victims to sue municipalities and the state for 35 years as well.
Nesselbush said she wanted to be sure states and cities were included, invoking the cases of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky and USA Gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, who worked for Michigan State.
The amended bill then immediately was passed by both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate. The vote was 37-0.
While the legislation allows victims to sue perpetrators for the full 35 years whether their current statute of limitations has tolled or not, it doesn’t do the same for institutions. Churches, scouting groups or schools can be sued during the full 35 years only if the statute of limitations hasn’t already tolled by the time this bill becomes law. That effectively means anyone who is currently over the age of 25 would only be able to sue the abuser, not the institution. But if they realize the abuse happened or make the “causal connection” later in life, they’ll get an additional seven years to do so.
“The seven-year recovery rule was everything,” Scanlon said. “If that wasn’t on the table we were gonna walk away.”
The bill was then sent immediately back to the House, which passed it. It now goes to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk for her signature.
“Abuse of any kind cannot be tolerated anywhere,” Raimondo said in a statement. “As a mother, I find reports of child abuse particularly disturbing. I’ve long supported efforts to hold abusers accountable and ensure that victims are given the time needed to come forward. I look forward to signing this important legislation in the coming days.”
The Rhode Island Catholic Conference, whose lobbyist the Rev. Bernard Healey pushed hard against previous versions of the bill, sent a statement in support of the legislation.
“We applaud the General Assembly’s passage of H-5171B which 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,” Healey said.
“It is now time for the process of achieving justice and healing for victims to move forward,” he continued. “Today’s action by the General Assembly moves us closer to that end.”