When Rhode Island lawmakers in 2019 extended the deadline to file lawsuits over childhood sexual abuse, they said victims could sue even if the clock had already run out under the old law — so long as the victims were suing a “perpetrator.”
What is a perpetrator? A state Superior Court judge on Wednesday heard more than an hour of arguments on that issue from three victims of clergy abuse who say the leaders of the Catholic Diocese of Providence could be considered “perpetrators” under the new law even if they didn’t physically carry out the abuse — and from the diocese, which said they cannot.
“The General Assembly does not want the court to go down the rabbit hole that’s laid out in page after page of the plaintiffs’ brief,” Howard Merten, an attorney for the diocese’s leaders, told Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel in a remote hearing broadcast live on YouTube.
The arguments looked back on some of the darkest chapters in the history of the Providence Diocese. The outcome will determine whether that history will continue to be litigated in court: The diocese says the suits, filed by three men who say they were abused as boys by different Rhode Island priests, should be dismissed.
The accusers, on the other hand, say the case should go to a jury to decide.
In 2019, the General Assembly passed a law that extended the deadline to file suits over sexual abuse from seven years to 35 years after a victim’s 18th birthday. Going forward, anyone can use that new deadline, whether they’re suing the person who physically carried out the abuse or an institution that may have negligently hired or supervised the abuser.
If the clock had already run out under the old law, though, victims could sue before they’re 53 only if they were suing a “perpetrator.”
The claims against the diocese made by the three plaintiffs in the case that was argued Wednesday — Philip Edwardo, Robert Houllahan and Peter Cummings — would have run out under the old law.
They argue that diocesan leaders’ conduct was so egregious that it rises to the level of criminal conduct, making the defendants “perpetrators” — no less a perpetrator, for the purposes of being sued, than the abusive priests themselves.
The priests aren’t named as defendants; Philip Magaldi and Normand Demers are dead. John Petrocelli was removed from ministry in 2002, according to the diocese’s list of “credibly accused” clergy, which includes all three priests.
Taken together, the decisions and the plain language of the new statute make clear that the law in Rhode Island has two “baskets,” the attorney for the diocesan leaders argued: “perpetrators” and “non-perpetrators.”
Perpetrators were the ones who actually carried out the abuse, Merten said. Non-perpetrators were people who might have caused or contributed to it, but didn’t actually carry it out. “Non-perpetrators” included even people whose conduct might arguably be criminal, like “causing or contributing” to the abuse someone else commits, Merten said.
“Based on the statute and the cases that led up to the statute ... these cases should be dismissed, because there’s not a single allegation that any of the defendants actually engaged in sexual abuse,” Merten said.
If the legislature had really wanted to let victims sue institutions retroactively, there were simpler ways of doing it, Merten said.
Timothy Conlon, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said previous court decisions make room for the sorts of suits he’s bringing, even if they might have seemed far-fetched at the time. But now, we know much more about what the diocese and its leaders did and didn’t do. What they did and didn’t do rises to the level of criminal conduct, making them “perpetrators” under civil law and open to these suits, Conlon said.
“From their point of view, you can commit a crime by aiding and abetting a child molester willfully and it doesn’t matter — if you don’t have physical hands on the child, I guess it’s irrelevant,” Conlon said. “I don’t know where it comes from. It comes from some magic trick.... They get a pass, that’s the argument.”
In Rhode Island, predator priests tended to accumulate in certain areas, suggesting a common plan and scheme to carry out crimes, Conlon said. The priests, he said, weren’t the only ones responsible as perpetrators of child sexual abuse.
“If you’re looking at the single tentacle, you might think you’ve got a snake,” Conlon said. “This is an octopus, and this octopus was protecting pedophile priests, deliberately.”