For the past two years, lawmakers have worked to extend the amount of time survivors of childhood sexual abuse have to file a civil lawsuit in Rhode Island.
After dying before receiving a vote on the House floor last session, the legislation appears close to passing now. However, if the Senate passes the legislation as it is currently written, the two chambers will have similar proposals with at least one key difference.
The Senate version extends the statute of limitations from seven years from adulthood to 35, essentially extending the age by which someone would need to file a lawsuit in such cases to 53. The House version includes language that allows someone seven years from the point at which they discover, or realize, that an incident of childhood sexual abuse occurred.
Advocates say that language needs to be in the final law, because it can take decades for someone to come forward with a lawsuit.
“With this issue of childhood sexual abuse, people put it away in a very faraway place in their psyches oftentimes for many years,” said Senator Donna Nesselbush, a Democrat from Pawtucket who sponsored the Senate legislation.
According to the nonprofit advocacy organization Child USA, the average age for a survivor to disclose abuse happened is 52 years old.
“So we need to craft a remedy,” said Nesselbush.
Earlier in the session the Rhode Island Catholic Church called the provision a “serious flaw” that could allow lawsuits “indefinitely,” and could be challenged in the courts.
But Nesselbush believes that civil lawsuits are an important part of working to keep childhood sexual from happening in the future, because they make important details part of the public record.
“Those lawsuits expose who the perpetrators were,” said Nesselbush. “By exposing who the perpetrators were, and how the abuse occurred, allows these organizations to change their ways and protect victims going forward.”
She acknowledges that if the legislation becomes law more institutions, the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts for example, could face new lawsuits and possibly new settlements.
“We have never created laws based on a defendant’s ability to pay, and I’m not prepared to start now,” said Nesselbush, a lawyer.