PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Describing abuse that took place decades ago, victims of sexual abuse implored lawmakers Thursday night to eliminate the statute of limitations that prevents victims from suing their abusers after years have passed.
The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Donna Nesselbush of Pawtucket and Democratic Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee of South Kingstown, would allow victims an unlimited amount of time to bring civil claims against their alleged abusers.
Jim Scanlan, who identified himself in 2015 as one of the anonymous victims featured in the “Spotlight” movie, testified to the committee that it took decades for him to tell anyone that he was raped by Jesuit priest James Talbot when he was a student at Boston College High School in 1977.
“This is a testimony about someone who used threats and intimidation and his power to prevent me or intimidate me from coming forward,” Scanlan said.
Talbot was ultimately convicted for the crime and served a prison sentence beginning in 2005 after Scanlan came forward. He first told his story to The Boston Globe during the newspaper’s Spotlight investigation that exposed the Catholic Church’s coverup of clergy sex abuse, and he was later portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie portrayal of the events as “Kevin from Providence.”
He later came out publicly, nearly 40 years after the abuse. He and other survivors told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Rhode Island’s statute of limitations – three years for adults and seven years after a child victim turns 18 – is too short.
“For those of us who survived this, retelling the story is very painful,” Scanlan said. “I didn’t tell a soul.”
Ann Hagan Webb, the sister of Rep. Hagan McEntee, said she was abused by a priest in West Warwick from the ages of 5 to 12, repressing memories of the events until she was 40.
“I was too fragile, I could not have come forward,” Hagan Webb said. “Today, I could do it. But today is 53 years since the abuse stopped, and 25 years since I remembered it. That’s a long time, and it’s nowhere within the statute of limitations.”
She now works as a psychologist, primarily treating victims of sexual abuse whom she said often tell her she is the first person they have ever confided in, decades after the abuse occurred.
“Shame keeps children from telling their parents, and sometimes even themselves,” Hagan Webb said.
Senator Nesselbush said she introduced the legislation because she felt the current statute of limitations is behind the times.
“Victims are rarely able to come to grips with what has happened to them in the current scheme of three to seven years,” she said. “It takes many victims decades to come to terms with what has happened to them … let alone bring their case in open court.”
Rhode Island’s laws carry no statute of limitations for the crime of first-degree sexual assault or child molestation, but victims of lesser degrees of sexual assault still face a time clock to pursue criminal charges.
Even without a criminal statute of limitations, it can be difficult to prove a sexual assault case decades after the fact, which often leaves victims with civil litigation as their only recourse to seek justice when much time has passed after the alleged abuse.
It’s unclear if the removal of the statute of limitations would retroactively apply to abuse cases that are already past the limit, but lawyers who testified said the issue would likely be decided by the Supreme Court if the bill becomes law.
No one testified in person against the legislation, but the Rhode Island Catholic Conference responded to a request from Eyewitness News with a lengthy statement opposing the bill.
The Rev. Bernard Healey, the Catholic group’s director, said the bill “impedes the administration of justice and does little to protect victims.”
“Statutes of limitations are meant to promote justice by preventing surprises through the revival of claims that have been allowed to lie dormant,” Healey wrote. “Furthermore, statutes of limitations promote fairness in several ways including preventing old claims in which evidence is lost, memories change and witnesses disappear and guard against false or misrepresented claims.”
In written testimony to the committee, the ACLU’s Rhode Island chapter also said the statute of limitations should not be eliminated out of concern for the due process rights of the accused, but could be extended.
“We recognize and fully appreciate the various social and psychological factors that may inhibit a victim of sexual abuse from coming forward promptly with allegations of such crimes, and so there is much to be said for extending the current relatively short statute of limitations for conduct that occurred when the alleged victim was minor,” the written testimony said.
Nesselbush said while she wants the statute of limitations to be completely eliminated, she would accept if the committee extends it only for childhood victims, or to a longer time period like 30 to 35 years.