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R.I. Supreme Court sides with Providence Diocese in priest abuse cases

The Rhode Island Supreme and Superior Court.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The state Supreme Court ruled last week that a 2019 law extending the deadline to sue over childhood sexual abuse doesn’t retroactively apply to people or institutions who may have enabled child sexual abuse, but didn’t actually commit it.

The decision comes in the cases of three men who said they were abused by priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence when they were boys. The justices upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the men’s lawsuits against the diocese and its leaders, finding that the old deadline — which already ran out — applied to their suits.

In 2019, the state extended the deadline to sue over childhood sexual abuse from seven years to 35 years after a victim’s 18th birthday. Victims could use that new deadline to file lawsuits even if the deadline had run out under older versions of the law, but only if they were suing the “perpetrator.” Suits against “non-perpetrators” would be able to use the new deadline, too, but only going forward, not retroactively.

The cases, which were filed in the wake of that law change, came down to the meaning of “perpetrator.” The men argued that the conduct of the diocese and its leaders was so egregious — like knowingly shuffling abusive priests and thwarting law enforcement scrutiny — that it amounted to “perpetrator” conduct under the law, the same way an aider and abettor can be held liable under criminal law. That meant they could use the new deadline to sue the diocese and its leaders, even though the deadline for them had already run out before the 2019 law change, they argued.

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A Superior Court judge in 2020 found otherwise, dismissing the suits. The Supreme Court has now affirmed that decision. Among other reasons, the justices found that the defendants in the civil cases — various church institutions and leaders — couldn’t be found culpable as aiders and abettors.

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“None of plaintiffs’ numerous allegations accuse defendants of participating in the sexual abuse of these victims, nor assisting these priests in accomplishing their goal of sexually molesting plaintiffs,” Supreme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg wrote for the court. “It is clear that the motivation of these defendants, although deplorable in its own right, was for purely selfish, self-preservation purposes.”

The court also reasoned that even if the institutional defendants had violated the state’s penal code, their conduct as alleged would still count them as non-perpetrators under the civil law setting out the new deadline. The allegations are appalling, but they fall under non-perpetrator conduct under the new statute of limitations law, which can include things like concealment and failure to report child abuse, the court found.

“We respect the court’s decision in this matter,” said Michael Kieloch, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.

The decision is a setback for legal efforts to address a legacy of priest sexual abuse in Rhode Island, but it was widely expected after the justices’ deeply skeptical questioning at oral arguments earlier this year.

The appeal was in the case of three men who’d tried to use the new statute of limitations, although several other priest abuse lawsuits were also filed under the same legal argument that the Supreme Court has now closed off.

“Suffice it to say, I’ve heard from a number of victims expressing their frustration with the court’s reading of the statute in this opinion,” said Timothy Conlon, the attorney for the three named victims in the appeal. “There are certainly legislators that don’t share the court’s view of what the legislation was intended to do, but that’s why we have courts. The ball is now squarely back in the legislature’s hands if this state is not going to be saddled with policies that protect those who enable abuse.”

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Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him @bamaral44.