PROVIDENCE — Victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests asked the state Supreme Court in oral arguments Wednesday to revive their lawsuits against the Diocese of Providence, arguing that a state law passed in 2019 allowed them to sue the institution and its leaders.
The case comes down to whether the Diocese of Providence and its leaders can be considered “perpetrators” of childhood sexual abuse under a 2019 law. The victims argue that the conduct of the diocese and its leaders was so egregious that they could be considered a “perpetrator,” the same way the driver of a getaway car can be criminally charged in a bank robbery.
They appear to face an uphill climb. The victims’ attorney, Timothy Conlon, faced so much skeptical questioning from one justice that his allotted time went over by several minutes. During the back-and-forth between Conlon and Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg, the justice referred to the legislative history of the 2019 law as “very damning” to Conlon’s argument. She said the things Conlon alleges the diocese and its leaders did, like negligent supervision, were spelled out in the law as “non-perpetrator” actions. And she pressed Conlon to spell out what specific criminal act he was alleging, rather than just — and here she waved her hands in a sort of vague way — some sort of “criminal responsibility.”
“What is it?” asked Goldberg, sounding exasperated.
“Supplying a pedophile with a trafficking network to move children into your building so they can have (sexual contact),” Conlon said.
The diocese’s attorney, meanwhile, used only half of his allotted 30 minutes before sitting back down.
A decision is expected in the coming months.
In 2019, the General Assembly passed what’s known as Annie’s Law. The legislation extended the deadline to sue for childhood sexual abuse until a victim turned 53. Victims could use that new deadline to sue a “perpetrator” even if deadlines under older versions of the law had already run out. If they were suing a non-perpetrator, like someone whose acts caused or contributed to sexual abuse, they could use the new deadline — known as a statute of limitations — only going forward.
Multiple victims came forward in the wake of Annie’s Law to sue the diocese. They argued that the diocese and its leaders actively thwarted criminal cases, shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish without telling anyone, and committed other acts that could be considered crimes. That made them “perpetrators,” the same way an aider and abettor can be a perpetrator, they argued.
The old deadlines — it was most recently seven years — had already run out for the men whose cases were being argued Wednesday.
The victims pointed to an older state Supreme Court case called Kelly v. Marcantonio to support their use of the term “perpetrator.”
A state Superior Court judge disagreed, dismissing the cases in October 2020. Judge Netti C. Vogel found that when the General Assembly passed its law in 2019, it actually changed the definition of “perpetrator” from the Kelly case and put the sort of conduct at issue here in the “non-perpetrator” category — acts that cause or contribute to sexual abuse, but aren’t actually the abuse itself. “Non-perpetrator” acts could even be considered criminal, she reasoned, but under the civil law, they’d still be a non-perpetrator.
The victims are asking the state’s high court to come to a different conclusion. (Advocates for priest abuse victims say it can take years for a victim to come forward.) The law was ambiguous, Conlon argued, and the court should look to what the legislature intended.
“Every scrap of information we have about what was considered before the legislature as they passed these bills was a clear intent to expand access to the courts for victims,” Conlon said.
The diocese’s lawyer, meanwhile, told the four justices hearing the case that the lawsuits should stay dismissed. (Justice Erin Lynch Prata, who was in the state Senate when the legislation passed, did not participate in arguments.)
“Every piece of (the law) makes clear that the defendants here are not perpetrators, and that they fall squarely within a very, very broad definition of non-perpetrator,” said Howard Merten, representing the diocese.
Three cases were argued Wednesday, but other suits have since been filed that would likely be affected by the outcome of these arguments.
The issue of child sexual abuse by priests has cast a shadow on Rhode Island for decades. The Diocese of Providence has settled related legal cases in the past. In 2019, the diocese published a list of what it deemed “credibly accused” clergy. (All three accused clergy members at issue in Wednesday’s cases were on the list.) Even now, the list continues to be updated, most recently when a long-dead clergy member’s name was added to the list in recent months. Joseph McCra died in 1964. No other information on the allegation is available. The diocese is also being sued for libel by John Tormey, whose name is included on the list and who denies abusing anyone. A state judge denied the diocese’s motion to dismiss that case in November, court records show.
Wednesday was the culmination of years of arguments — first in the General Assembly as lawmakers considered extending the deadline to sue, then in the courts over what those lawmakers actually did when they passed Annie’s Law. The law is named for Ann Hagan Webb, who has become an advocate for fellow victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests. Webb’s sister, Carol Hagan McEntee, is a state representative. She was in court Wednesday.
Hagan McEntee said afterward that the distinction between “perpetrator” and “non-perpetrator” in the law was the result of lobbying by the diocese. But the law, in her view, should allow just these sorts of suits. If the justices disagree, she said they’ll look for a legislative solution.
“That’s why I’m here — to see what the problems are so I can fix them,” she said.