In 2019, Rhode Island lawmakers passed a new law for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This law extended the legal deadline to file civil lawsuits against one’s abuser.
Unfortunately, a loophole in the law has made it difficult for survivors to hold institutions accountable for their part in the abuse. To close the loophole, lawmakers are once again proposing new legislation for survivors.
But, institutions facing abuse allegations, such as the Catholic Church, oppose the proposed bill.
Rhode Island’s Annie’s Law
In 2019, Rhode Island lawmakers passed a bill called Annie’s Law.
Annie’s Law is named after a state representative’s sister, Ann Hagan Webb. As a child, Webb was abused by a parish priest.
Annie’s Law extends the state’s statute of limitations to file a civil claim against an abuser.
A statute of limitations is a legal deadline. SOLs vary based on the jurisdiction, the crime and the intended legal action (criminal charges versus a civil claim).
Before Annie’s Law: Survivors had to file a civil claim within seven years after turning 18 years of age.
After Annie’s Law: Survivors may now file a claim anytime within 35 years following their 18th birthday.
This new deadline extension also applies retroactively. It revives older cases of abuse that would otherwise be expired under the previous statute.
Thus, any childhood sexual abuse survivor in Rhode Island may file a claim against an abuser any time before their 53rd birthday.
Annie’s Law gave many abuse survivors a second chance at justice. However, there is one loophole in the law that prevents many survivors from gaining the full justice they deserve.
A Loophole In Annie’s Law
Many state courts have taken a narrow interpretation of the language in Annie’s Law.
According to the state court’s interpretations of Annie’s Law, any survivor can file a lawsuit against an abuser no matter how old the case. The new deadline applies retroactively to all cases against “perpetrators.”
However, for lawsuits against a defendant who is not the direct abuser, survivors can only file a lawsuit if the case is still viable under the old statute. Some judges have dismissed cases against institutions. These judges claim institutions and their leaders are not “perpetrators” by law as they did not commit the actual abuse.
In 2019 and 2020, several men sued the Diocese of Providence under the new statute. Their cases would be expired under the previous law.
The three priest abuse lawsuits claim the diocese protected abusive priests to the point of criminal misconduct. In one example, the diocese interfered with a law enforcement investigation. The lawsuits argue that because of its behavior, the diocese should be considered a “perpetrator” under the new law.
Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel dismissed the claims. Vogel reasoned, according to the language of the law, the “perpetrator” could only be the abuser.
The plaintiffs have appealed the judge’s decision. In the meantime, lawmakers are considering options to close the loophole.
Lawmakers Seek To Close Loophole
In February 2021, Rhode Island lawmakers introduced a new bill to close the loophole and ensure survivors have the opportunity to sue responsible institutions.
The new legislation would expand the definition of “perpetrator” to include individuals or institutions that aided or concealed the abuse.
If passed, survivors would be able to sue entities such as the diocese or schools. They would also be able to sue the responsible leaders of these institutions.
“There’s been no justice for these people. Time alone should not be the reason to allow an injustice to occur.”
Similar Legislation Enacted Nationwide
Rhode Island is one of many states considering statute reforms for abuse survivors. Many states have expanded their statutes or opened “look back” windows to revive older abuse claims. For example, California, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. all have open “look back” windows.
However, the deadline to file a claim in Washington, D.C. is quickly approaching. Washington, D.C.’s “look back” window will close on May 2, 2021.
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Catholic Church Opposes Proposed Bill
Many people support the proposed bill to close the loophole. It is one more piece of legislation that could directly benefit child sexual abuse survivors.
However, the Rhode Island Catholic Church and the state’s insurance lobby oppose the new bill.
Rev. Bernard Healey, chief lobbyist for the Providence Diocese, voiced his concerns, “It complicates and impedes the administration of justice … does little to protect victims, and subjects an institution that has made tremendous and demonstrable strides on the issues surrounding child sexual abuse to liability stemming from activity that occurred literally decades ago.”
An advocate for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association claims the bill will interfere with the ongoing case before the state Supreme Court. Additionally, he claims lawmakers aren’t considering the “potentially disruptive impact on Rhode Island’s insurance market.”
Many supporters of the bill believe this strong opposition highlights a lack of empathy for the victims.
“The Providence Diocese allowed priests the freedom to molest, rape, destroy innocent children on their very own properties. For the church to work so hard against these cases proves that [the hierarchy] doesn’t care one bit about child abuse victims.”
Despite strong opposition, the bill has a great amount of support behind it. It may well become law in the near future.
Amaral, B. (2021, March 1). R.I. lawmakers want to change the deadline to sue over sexual abuse. The Boston Globe.
Gregg, K. (2021, March 24). Church, insurers oppose new effort to extend deadline for sex-abuse lawsuits. The Providence Journal.