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Lawsuit alleging decades-old clergy sex abuse will be first test of new R.I. statute of limitations law

Bishop Thomas Tobin is accused in the suit. Gretchen Ertl

PROVIDENCE — A former altar boy accusing a long-dead parish priest of sexually abusing him is bringing the first litigation under a new state law expanding the statute of limitations for similar sexual misconduct cases.

The Rev. Philip Magaldi has been dead for more than a decade, but the lawyer for his accuser says the Diocese of Providence and its hierarchy can be held accountable as perpetrators of the alleged abuse.

Providence lawyer Timothy J. Conlon, who has represented dozens of victims of clergy abuse, likened the diocese and the bishops to accessories in a crime. The 200-plus-page lawsuit filed in Providence Superior Court this week lays out the argument that the diocese had a system to cover up and shield clergy who abuse children.


Philip Edwardo, the plaintiff, was an altar boy at St. Anthony Church in North Providence, where Magaldi was a priest. Edwardo alleges that Magaldi began abusing him when he was 12, in the late 1970s, until he was 17. He accuses Magaldi of inappropriately touching and molesting him 100 to 300 times over a five-year span, including during trips to Hampton Beach, N.H., and New York City.

The lawsuit is filed against former bishop Louis A. Gelineau, who was in charge of the diocese during the alleged abuse, Bishop Thomas Tobin, St. Anthony Church, and the diocese.

A diocese spokeswoman said in a statement that the lawsuit was being reviewed by legal counsel.

Gelineau, 91, and residing at the Villa of St. Antoine assisted living facility in North Smithfield, did not return a call seeking comment.

The lawsuit was filed Monday, just two days before Edwardo turned 53 — and before the statute of limitations expired.

The new law gives victims up to 35 years after they turn 18 to file lawsuits against their perpetrators and “perpetrator defendants.” The law is retroactive in these cases.


That’s not the case for nonperpetrators, such as churches or agencies that employed or supervised the offender.

For the purposes of the legal case, the priest was considered an alleged perpetrator. Conlon is arguing that the bishops and the hierarchy that allegedly enabled his offenses are also “perpetrator defendants,” like the getaway driver in a crime.

Conlon pointed to a 1996 ruling by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The court determined that the only intended target in these cases is the person who actually commits the criminal sexual act and not the employer or supervisor — unless the employer or supervisor aids and assists to the point that they would also be subject to prosecution.

Take the federal investigation into corruption under former mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr.

“Buddy Cianci was acquitted of the underlying charges, but convicted of running a [criminal] enterprise that committed the acts,” Conlon said. “The guy who drives the getaway car didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s guilty of murder.”

His lawsuit argues that the hierarchy of the diocese had established “a significant getaway vehicle for these perpetrators” — moving abusive priests, interfering with criminal investigations, and covering their abuses.

Law professor David A. Logan, the former dean of Roger Williams University School of Law, said the lawsuit involves questions of legislative intent.

Who is considered a perpetrator under the law? The argument will have to distinguish between those who just know of the danger versus those who provide the getaway, he said.


“The stakes are incredibly high,” Logan added. “The diocese has deep pockets, and I’m sure great political and economic interest in having this case nipped in the bud. If it’s not, there’s no way there’s going to be a judgment against the diocese that’s not subject to an appeal.”

State Representative Carol Hagan McEntee, who sponsored the legislation in honor of her sister, who was abused by a priest, said her intent was clear.

“A nonperpetrator becomes a perpetrator through the continuous and deliberate acts in which they intentionally transfer a known pedophile to another parish or state without disclosing or providing notice to that parish or state of past sexual abuse by the priest, which lead to that priest abusing other innocent children,” McEntee said in a text Wednesday.

On July 1, the same day that Governor Gina Raimondo signed legislation extending the civil statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse, the Diocese of Providence published the names of clergy who had been credibly or publicly accused.

One was Magaldi.

Since being ordained in 1961, he had bounced from parish to parish — Warren, Johnston, Providence, Cranston, North Providence, and Newport in Rhode Island and San Antonio and Fort Worth in Texas — leaving a trail of accusations and criminal behavior in his wake. Magaldi was removed from the ministry in 1992 and died in 2008.

At the time of his death, the bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth and Bishop Tobin were appealing to the Vatican to have Magaldi dismissed from the priesthood, the Rhode Island Catholic reported.


Conlon wouldn’t speculate on whether the case could end up before the state Supreme Court. The lawsuit, if successful, would have far-reaching effects on the diocese.

The suit demands judgment of compensatory damages and punitive damages. What he’d like, Conlon said, is “real recognition on the part of the church of its culpability, real efforts to reach out to these victims, and, frankly, do justice by them.

“They’ve hidden behind the statute of limitations, and they’re at a crossroads, as far as I’m concerned,” Conlon added.

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at