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RI lawmakers spurn AG’s request to use grand jury for report on clergy abuse

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Attorney General Peter Neronha says Rhode Islanders may learn less about sex abuse in the Catholic Church because lawmakers decided to bury a bill that would have allowed grand jury reports to be made public even without indictments.

Neronha’s bill — which failed to get a vote before the General Assembly recessed Friday — is garnering new attention this week after the Diocese of Providence released a list of 50 clergymen “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors. It’s unclear how many additional accusations were not deemed credible by church officials.

Neronha, who is conducting his own investigation into past claims of sexual abuse in the church, said publishing information gathered by a grand jury could provide greater transparency surrounding a historically opaque issue. Pennsylvania’s attorney general took that route in compiling an explosive report on abuse in the church that came out last year.

“While our legislation would have no impact on our ability to investigate clergy sex abuse, it could have a profound impact on what the public eventually learns about the investigation,” Neronha said in a statement.

State law currently does not allow a grand jury to issue a report without an indictment, which remains a sore subject for many Rhode Islanders who would have liked to learn more about hot topics investigated in the past.

Most recently, there was much debate about whether to unseal information from a grand jury investigation into the state’s failed $75 million investment in Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios.

Neronha said such a power would have been used “sparingly,” including when it could help Rhode Islanders better understand issues of high public interest, such as the Catholic abuse crisis.

But lawmakers saw it differently.

House spokesperson Larry Berman said lawmakers focused this year on passing legislation proposed by Rep. Carol McEntee, D-South Kingstown, to extend the civil statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse. The bill was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo Monday, the day the diocese released its list of priests accused of sexually abusing minors.

“The attorney general asked for a significant change in policy regarding grand juries and there was no consensus that this was the appropriate policy,” Berman said.

No one testified in opposition to the bill at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on April 3, according to a witness list. But Michael DiLaura, an assistant public defender, did submit news reports that he said highlighted “recent problems and abuses under the current system” in Pennsylvania.

Similarly, Senate spokesperson Greg Pare said the bill was new this session and failed to muster enough support this year.

“While it certainly had merit, concerns were raised during the committee process,” Pare said. “The committee will continue to review the legislation should it be reintroduced next session.”

Neronha, for his part, said he will continue to advocate for the legislation as he continues to dig into decades of Church documents related to sex abuse.  

“While I envision this process to be used sparingly, I believe it would have been a valuable tool that would benefit the people of Rhode Island,” he said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter

Ted Nesi and Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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