Advocates for victims of sexual abuse are imploring lawmakers to repeal Rhode Island’s seven-year statute of limitations for pressing civil charges when the alleged victim is a minor.
A bill introduced by Sen. Donna Nesselbush would repeal the statute of limitations for any type of sexual abuse of a minor. Rhode Island currently has no statute of limitations in cases of first-degree sexual assault.
Supporters of the legislation say it can often take decades for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to come forward. They gathered at the Statehouse in Providence Thursday, urging lawmakers to pass the change.
“The only way to stop these people is to have them have the fear that sooner or later they’re going to get named,” said Ann Hagan Webb, a psychologist and survivor of sexual abuse. “And make no mistake, just because they’re over 50 does not mean they will stop abusing children. The abuse of children is not about sex; it’s about power.”
Tim Colon, a lawyer who represents survivors of sexual abuse, said Rhode Island’s legal time limits allow perpetrators to continue harming victims, who may spend years feeling too ashamed to speak out.
“The statute of limitations, allows them to perpetrate that fraud upon the children,” Conlon said, “and then muzzle the children if they find the courage some 20 or 30 years later and out the perpetrator for the abuse.”
Massachusetts and Connecticut have 30- and 35-year statutes of limitations, respectively, for sexual abuse cases.
But Andrew Horwitz, a professor at Roger Williams University Law School, says these statutes serve an important function in the legal system.
“The problem of the defendant being able to mount a proper defense is very real in these kinds of cases,” Horwitz said. “If somebody is being prosecuted for a set of allegations that allegedly took place 20 or 30 years earlier, the ability to prove where you were at that point in time, to really fundamentally be able to say anything other than ‘it’s not true, I didn’t do it,’ is going to be very challenging in those circumstances."
The bill introduced by Sen. Nesselbush was heard Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it was held for further study. An identical House bill has been introduced by Rep. Carol McEntee.
The legislative proposals follow several changes in recent years to laws governing the way sexual abuse allegations are handled. The changes came after abuse allegations involving staff at public and private schools in Rhode Island, including St. George’s School, an Episcopal boarding school in Middletown.