Last week, a North Kingstown resident pleaded no contest to two charges of child molestation.
Matthew Johnson, 23, of 136 West Allentown Road, was originally charged with four counts of first degree child molestation in April of 2018. However, after nearly two years of court proceedings and negotiations over plea deals, Johnson eventually pleaded no contest to two amended charges of child molestation.
Johnson received a sentence of 15 years at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute, with 5 years to serve and 10 years suspended, followed by 15 years of probation.
And now, with the trial over, the mother of the two boys who were abused by Johnson, Sarah, said she wanted her sons’ stories to be heard, adding that she was also seeking to raise awareness around the subject of child predators and the far-reaching effects their actions have. Johnson was the boys’ godfather, and had spent a lot of time with them and the rest of the family.
The boys, now nine, were seven at the time of disclosing the abuse.
Sarah said her sons told her in November of 2017 that Johnson had been molesting them, which kick-started a legal process that would go on for more than two years, before finally coming to a conclusion this month.
Sarah, who had known Johnson for many, many years, said she was horrified to hear what her sons had to say.
“At the time, I was so in shock,” she said. “He was [like] family. I taught him in Sunday school. He was the boys’ godfather from the day they were born.”
Sarah immediately took action, alerting the children’s therapist and the authorities.
While Sarah and her family currently live in Massachusetts, she previously lived in North Kingstown, and said that the abuse happened primarily in Rhode Island.
Since disclosing the abuse, Sarah said that it has taken a long time for her sons to understand that what happened to them wasn’t normal.
“It’s been a lot of therapy with the boys,” Sarah said. “It took months and months and months of therapy for them to realize that this wasn’t normal, that people don’t just do this.”
And since realizing what happened to them was in fact a crime, both of her sons have become concerned that something similar could happen to other children.
“Since they realized it was a crime–not just not normal but a crime what happened to them– they realized [Johnson] was sick in the mind and that this can’t happen to other children,” Sarah said.
In retrospect, Sarah added, the signs had long pointed to her sons coping with abuse and she wants other parents to know what signs could indicate abuse in children.
“They’ve been in therapy a long time, they’ve had issues since preschool,” she said. “Looking back, we saw the signs for a long time.”
According to Sarah, in the time leading up to the disclosure of the abuse, her children exhibited behavior, such as bed-wetting, playing alone and difficulty behaving at school.
She also said that they weren’t sure how long the abuse had been going on, or how many times it had happened.
“The boys could not put a number on how many times this has happened. They were asked several times in therapy,” she continued. “They couldn’t pinpoint a time that it had not been like this.”
Sarah went on to say that both of her sons were “adamant in their thinking” that if their story is known, it could help other children talk to their parents about a potential abusive situation, with Johnson or anyone else.
“They’re just hoping that other kids aren’t hurt by anyone else, or that maybe other kids will talk to their parents about maybe something happening to them with Matthew Johnson,” Sarah said.
During the trial, Sarah said that her sons both voluntarily wrote a victim impact statement, which she read aloud to the court, along with her own statement.
“I wanted justice for the boys as their mother, as their voice,” she said. “I wanted them to realize, as they got older, that they got justice.”
After Johnson was sentenced, Sarah said that there was a noticeable difference in both her sons’ behavior.
While she didn’t shy away from the damage that had been done to her sons–with both requiring specialized education and continued therapy–Johnson’s sentencing represented a chance to move forward.
Even at such a young age, Sarah said, there was an immediate understanding and a sense of closure.
“And after he was taken away in handcuffs, they looked at us and said, ‘OK, it’s done, It’s over.’ And they left the courtroom and they were like, ‘are we going out for ice cream now?’” Sarah said. “The beauty of a 9-year-old being able to close a chapter and move on.”
“Since then, we’ve seen a distinct change in their behavior,” she added. “Things aren’t perfect, we still have a little moving on to do.”
Sarah was also critical about the legal process, which took nearly two-and-a-half years to be resolved since her sons originally disclosed the abuse.
“We were so exhausted by this point,” she said, adding that she wasn’t “thrilled” with the plea deal Johnson received.
In her victim impact statement to the court, Sarah summed up the prolonged process, describing it as “ridiculously difficult.”
“The case has gone on for over two years, it’s made moving on and letting go practically impossible, especially for two nine-year-old boys,” the last line of her impact statement reads. “Every day we didn’t see a resolution has been ridiculously difficult for them. That’s on you all.”
While she said that she recognized that the court system couldn’t be changed or reformed with ease, she said that the amount of plea deals that were negotiated and rejected represented a failure in the system as it’s currently designed.
“We’re not going to change the court system. That’s an animal that’s way bigger than everyone. But two and a half years, my God,” Sarah said. “It was all because he didn’t want to take any plea deals.”
Even though the whole experience took a toll on the entire family, Sarah said that she was motivated to speak out in order to call attention to the importance of believing children, especially when it comes to traumatic situations.
“You want other people to be aware,” she said. “A lot of people don’t believe their kids when they tell them stuff. My first instinct was, my kid said something so I’m on the side of my kids. You investigate and try to figure it out.”
Editor’s note: Names were withheld in this article for privacy reasons.