RI Catholic leaders oppose latest demand for bill on sex-abuse lawsuits

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s Catholic hierarchy on Monday rejected a new push to retroactively extend the state’s civil statute of limitations on child sex abuse, as explosive revelations in Pennsylvania reignited the debate.

At a State House news conference, state Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee and state Sen. Donna Nesselbush demanded that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio allow a vote on a bill that would extend the civil statute of limitations to 35 years after the victim turns 18. They were joined by more than a dozen other legislators.

The move could mean new lawsuits against the church and other organizations. Rhode Island’s current civil statute of limitations is seven years for child sexual abuse, though there is no time limit on criminal charges. Advocates said the comparable statutes of limitations are 35 years in Massachusetts and 30 years in Connecticut.

“No effort will be spared for us to seek justice,” Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, said.

The two lawmakers proposed similar legislation during this year’s Assembly session – though the original version would have eliminated the statute of limitations entirely – but Mattiello and Ruggerio never allowed a vote on the measure. McEntee, D-South Kingstown, said Mattiello was still floating alternative wording to her as late as 8:30 p.m. on the final night of session, and questioned why he had not done so sooner.

Moments before the news conference began, the Rhode Island Catholic Conference – which advocates for the diocese at the State House through its influential lobbyist, the Rev. Bernard Healey – released a statement that called sexual abuse “heartbreaking and devastating,” emphasizing that it happens “in every facet of society,” including but not limited to churches.

However, Healey indicated the diocese would only support expanding the statute of limitations “prospectively.” McEntee said Healey has been pushing the prospective provision for months but it remains a dealbreaker for her, because it would only allow the measure to cover abuse that occurs in the future, rather than allowing new claims from survivors in decades past.

Healey expressed concern earlier this year about such a possibility, warning that a wave of lawsuits could “drain resources from other important ministries” in the diocese. Nesselbush countered, “The church of all people should share its wealth. If they have money and they have harmed victims, this is the church; why shouldn’t the church share its money?”

Tobin speaks on grand-jury report

The spark for Monday’s news conference was last week’s release by a Pennsylvania grand jury of a report that indicated Catholic leaders there covered up allegations of abuse against hundreds of priests over many decades.

Rhode Island’s Catholic bishop, Thomas Tobin, served in the chancery in Pittsburgh from 1984 to 1995, eventually as an auxiliary bishop, but he is not named in the grand-jury report. While he has declined requests for an interview since the report was released, he answered some questions via email late last week.

“While I was in ministry in Pittsburgh I was never aware of any allegations of sexual abuse against any prelates, except those from other dioceses that were widely reported and dealt with by the Church at that time,” Tobin told Eyewitness News.

Tobin said he was not contacted by the grand jury, which he said was likely because during his time there he “was never responsible for clergy assignments or dealing with clergy behavioral issues.” He noted that the grand jury had investigated reports of abuse stretching over 70 years, some dating back to before he was born.

“I can say that during my time in the chancery, the leadership of the Diocese seemed very determined and resolute in responding to reports of abuse, especially during Bishop Wuerl’s (now Cardinal Wuerl) tenure,” Tobin said.

“As is well documented, Bishop Wuerl personally challenged the Vatican to prevent one accused Pittsburgh priest from being reinstated to the ministry,” he continued. “And during this time several priests were publicly removed from ministry, and some were even incarcerated for their offenses.”

Raimondo, Fung back latest proposal

The McEntee-Nesselbush proposal immediately won the support of the leading candidates for governor, both of whom are Catholic.

“As a mother and a layperson with deep faith and love for the Catholic Church, the reports of abuse and allegations of a cover up break my heart. I agree with Pope Francis that this abuse – regardless of where or when it takes place – is morally reprehensible and criminal,” Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

“Rep. McEntee and Sen. Nesselbush introduced a good bill last year to hold child sex abuses accountable and give survivors the time needed to come forward,” she continued. “I support the bill and will work with them and other advocates to ensure that it gets to my desk next year.”

Republican candidate Allan Fung said, “I appreciate and thank the senator and representative for their passion on this issue. Their willingness to amend last year’s broad legislation to a definitive 35 years after the age of majority, brings us in line with our neighboring states, and as such, would be something I’d support as governor.”

The reaction from the General Assembly’s leaders was more cautious.

Mattiello, D-Cranston, said only that the House would give McEntee’s proposal “a full and fair hearing.” (Nesselbush counted that such a promise “gets you nothing,” since many bills are killed by leadership after a hearing.) The speaker previously explained the bill’s demise by saying it was “primarily advocated” by McEntee and that the Judiciary Committee “could not reach consensus as to what the final terms would be.”

Mattiello’s Republican opponent in Cranston’s House District 15, Steven Frias, sided with McEntee. “We should be helping the victims of sexual abuse, rather than protecting its perpetrators,” Frias said in an email. “Rhode Island’s statute of limitations should be 35 years just like our neighbor Massachusetts.”

Ruggerio, D-North Providence, also made no commitments on the legislation and declined to say whether he supports its goal.

Greg Pare, Ruggerio’s spokesman, noted that Nesselbush’s original bill would have removed the civil statute of limitations entirely, which drew concerns from the ACLU and insurers. Pare also chided Nesselbush, saying she “never brought potential amendments to the committee or the Senate leadership” after an initial hearing.

State Rep. Brian Newberry, a lawyer and former House minority leader, said Ruggerio’s concerns had merit. He tweeted: “Insurance issues in situations like this should not be overlooked. Without [statutes of limitations] insurance costs skyrocket and/or options become scarce. Goes well beyond this specific situation. Willingness of government to ‘alter the deal’ sends its own signal.”

“Not opposed but must be cautious,” Newberry added.

Nesselbush said she had a positive conversation with Ruggerio on Monday about the bill. “I believe that he understands the urgency of this issue,” she said.

Other demands made

Passing legislation was not the only demand made at Monday’s news conference. Speakers also called for the attorney general to open a grand-jury investigation into the Providence diocese along the lines of what was done in Pennsylvania.

Democrat Peter Neronha – the favorite to succeed Attorney General Peter Kilmartin in January – said in a statement he supports extending the statute of limitations, having “seen the terrible toll that child sexual abuse of the kind found by the Pennsylvania Attorney General takes on victims and their families.”

“No one nor any institution is beyond the law, and those who engage in or facilitate such conduct must be held to account,” he said.

However, Neronha pointed out that Pennsylvania’s attorney general has a tool that Rhode Island’s attorney general does not: a state law which allows a grand jury to issue a report even when no criminal indictment is issued.

“I have long believed that such a statute should exist in Rhode Island, and it would assist the type of investigation called for here,” he said. “Absent such a statute, under current Rhode Island law, absent an indictment, it is very likely that the findings and any recommendations of the grand jury could not be released publicly.”

“Several other states, like Pennsylvania, have such a statute,” he said. “Rhode Island ought to have one as well.”

Speakers at Monday’s news conference also called on the diocese to release a full list of accused priests who are named in sealed church files. They cited a statement by Bishop Thomas Tobin in a 2007 deposition that said there were 125 such priests with files at the time. Only 38 of those names have been released, according to advocates.

A spokesperson for the diocese did not respond Monday to questions about the list.

Jim Scanlan, a local sex-abuse survivor who was portrayed in the movie “Spotlight,” additionally urged parishioners at Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich, where Healey is the pastor, to tell him to stop lobbying against the statute of limitations bill.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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