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R.I. Senate passes bill to criminalize sexual contact between teens and authority figures

While the House passed a version of this legislation in 2019, the Senate had never taken any action, until now.

The Rhode Island State House.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — The Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday that would make it a crime for authority figures to have sexual contact with teenagers under their supervision.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Jessica de la Cruz, would eliminate a loophole in Rhode Island that allows those with supervisory or disciplinary power — like coaches, teachers, and priests — to have sexual relations with minors between 14 and 18 years old.

“Children as young as 14 cannot consent to sexual activity with those in authority,” de la Cruz said.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering a vote Friday on a companion bill sponsored by Democratic Representative Julie Casimiro, whose district includes North Kingstown.


While the House passed a version of this legislation in 2019, the Senate had never taken any action, until now.

The legislation is moving forward as North Kingstown is being rocked by accusations that a respected longtime high school basketball coach had conducted “naked fat tests” of teen boys for about 25 years.

Former coach Aaron Thomas got their consent by asking if they were “shy or not shy”; those who said they weren’t shy removed their boxers, allowing Thomas to touch around their groins. One former student-athlete told the Globe he was 13 when Thomas began touching him.

Thomas is under investigation by the attorney general’s office and the North Kingstown police, but has not been criminally charged.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office declined comment on the ongoing investigation. However, he said, if the legislation is enacted into law, it will only apply to alleged conduct that occurs after its effective date.

Attorney General Peter Neronha wrote a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Cynthia Coyne that said he supported the intent of the bills.

Lawyer Timothy J. Conlon, who is representing several former student-athletes accusing the North Kingstown School Department of ignoring Thomas’ conduct, has said that the legislation would make prosecution easier, because it eliminates any discussion of “consent” by the minor.


In Rhode Island, the age of consent is 16. The state laws do not explicitly address the imbalance of power between a minor and someone in a position of trust, Conlon said.

Under state law, a person who engages in sex with a minor under 14 years old is guilty of first-degree child molestation sexual assault. The state law also criminalizes anyone over 18 who has sexual penetration with a minor who over 14 and under 16 years old.

The legislation would make it a third-degree sexual assault for anyone in a position of authority who has sexual contact, such as touching, or penetration with a minor over 14 and under 18 years old. A conviction of third-degree sexual assault carries a penalty of five years in prison.

The legislation allows an exemption if both parties are between 16 and 20 years old, and no more than 30 months apart in age.

The legislation found overwhelming support in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and just one senator questioned on the Floor Thursday.

Senator Samuel Bell, Providence Democrat, asked about including an exemption for authority figures who are sexually assaulted by minors. De la Cruz and co-sponsor Democratic Senator Frank Lombardi declined, saying there are already laws against sexual assault.

“It’s shocking we had to put this bill forth, that anyone in authority could influence a child in a sexual act,” Lombardi said. “This is about consent, and whether a 15-year-old under the influence of someone in authority can consent.”


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at Follow her @AmandaMilkovits.