PROVIDENCE—Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee has joined with other advocates for victims of sexual abuse to fight to abolish the statute of limitations for pressing civil charges against alleged sexual abusers.
Introduced in the House by McEntee (D-Dist. 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett) and in the Senate by Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence), the legislation proposed would eliminate the current seven-year civil statute of limitations (SOL) for injuries suffered as a result of sexual abuse.
“Basically, what happens to these people is when they get abused as a child they’re silenced by their perpetrator,” McEntee said Monday. “Then once they get their voice as adults they’re silenced again.”
The current SOL means victims of sexual abuse have just seven years from the time they experience the abuse—or from the time they turn 18—to file a claim.
Part of the problem with that, McEntee said, is often victims who were abused as children aren’t equipped emotionally to deal with what has happened to them until well into adulthood.
“By then it’s too late,” she added. “A 25-year-old is not equipped to deal with the shame and embarrassment of this. They just can’t do it at that point.”
For McEntee, the fight to eliminate this SOL has roots that extend into the experience of her own sister.
Ann Hagan Webb came forward in the early 1990s about repeated sexual abuse between the ages of five and 12 by Monsignor Anthony DeAngelis while a student at a Catholic school in West Warwick.
“[DeAngelis, who died in 1990] baptized us, he gave us first communion, he confirmed us,” McEntee said. “And this is the same guy that the whole time was abusing my sister on a regular basis.”
Webb shared her story of childhood sexual abuse during a hearing last Thursday before the Senate Committee on Judiciary.
“Sexual abuse crimes are the only crimes I know that leave the victims with a profound sense of shame,” Webb said in her testimony. “That’s true if you’re five abused by a trusted adult or family member, or you’re 35 raped by a stranger.”
Today, Webb is a licensed psychologist who for the last 16 years has specialized in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, focusing particularly on clergy abuse. She said survivors of childhood assault typically don’t come forward publicly until at least their late-30s.
“The shame permeates all of it and makes it very, very difficult to come forward,” Webb said Monday.
While in Rhode Island there is no statute of limitations for first-degree sexual assault, proving criminal sexual assault is difficult, especially several years or decades after it occurred.
“You’re talking about trying to prosecute many years later when the person comes forward and it’s a very tough case to prove criminally at that point,” McEntee said. “Evidence gets old, there’s no physical evidence at that point. But that shouldn’t mean we can’t allow them their day in court, civilly.”
And as criminal activity becomes more difficult to prove as years pass, seven years doesn’t allow much time for victims of sexual abuse to bring a civil case, said Webb, who added in her testimony that the process can be “grueling” and “deeply triggering.”
“It can be traumatizing to go through the whole process of filing a lawsuit and testifying and all that if you aren’t far enough beyond the intensity of initially dealing with your abuse,” said Webb, who said she began to deal her own abuse in 1992, nearly three decades after it happened.
“I had repressed the memory of it,” she continued. “It was when my kids were the same age I was when [the abuse] started that it really started to come forward for me.”
Webb was one of a few survivors to share powerful testimony Thursday. She was joined by Jim Scanlon, a Rhode Island native who in 2015 identified himself as one of the anonymous victims of Jesuit priest James Talbot in the case that inspired the movie “Spotlight.”
“We all speak for the people who can’t,” Webb added Monday.
While no one testified in person against the legislation Thursday, Rhode Island Catholic Conference has come out in opposition.
According to its website, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence has in place one of the strongest anti-sexual abuse programs in the United States, which includes offices of compliance and education. But despite those efforts, Webb said she’s witnessed survivors treated there “in an adversarial way.”
The proposed SOL elimination in RI comes a few years after then-governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick signed into law a similar bill in his state.
Until recently the SOL in Massachusetts for injuries resulting from sexual abuse had been just three years. But in 2014—following years of advocacy by victims with stories similar to Webb’s—the Massachusetts Legislature approved a bill extending that period to 35 years.
“This would be a huge step forward for Rhode Island. Rhode Island is really behind the times,” said Webb, who splits her time between Boston and Narragansett. “Really, I would be absolutely delighted if people in the future would be able to come forward to file lawsuits against their perpetrators and the people that enable them.”
In light of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements—which have encouraged countless alleged victims to tell their stories of abuse at the hands of those in power—and with Massachusetts as an example, McEntee is hopeful.
“People feel more empowered to come forward,” she said. “And I would think this is not a heavy lift.”
Webb echoed that.
“I think the time is right,” she said. “I think people are finally starting to get how long it takes to recover from this.”
Under current Rhode Island state law, all civil claims “must be brought within seven years of the act alleged to have caused the injury or condition, or seven years of the time the victim discovered or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or condition was caused by the act, whichever period expires later.”
The proposed legislation seeks to erase that, writing in its place that claims may be brought “at any time.”
“So that would be the hope,” McEntee said. “But I don’t see that as the reality.”
McEntee added that it’s more likely a version of the legislation extending the SOL would pass. She said she would be pleased with an SOL similar to those in Massachusetts or Connecticut—in Connecticut, there’s a 30-year SOL for injuries suffered as a result of sexual abuse.
“I’m fine with that,” McEntee added. “So long as we’re moving in the right direction.”
“We’re looking for this because it helps the kids,” she continued. “What I want to do is to give them their voices back.”