PROVIDENCE — On Thursday, South Kingstown Rep. Carol McEntee took to Twitter to draw attention once again to “the monsters” who sexually abuse small children and “the institutions that protect them.”
“Predators are still being institutionally protected, and too many victims are still without justice,” McEntee tweeted, as her older sister, Ann Hagan Webb, once again steeled herself to drive to the State House for a televised hearing.
Webb, now in her 60s, has, in the past, publicly recounted in graphic detail the abuse she suffered at the hands of her family’s parish priest over a seven-year period that began when she was in kindergarten at the Sacred Heart elementary school in West Warwick.
Headed to a House Judiciary Committee hearing on McEntee’s bill, H7409, to eliminate the time limit on lawsuits by victims of childhood sex abuse, Webb on Thursday turned the spotlight elsewhere, to one of the alleged victims of Smithfield priest Francis C. Santilli, who committed suicide at age 29.
“They told me I was not credible,” said Dennis Laprade, breaking down mid-testimony on what Santilli tried to do to him. The priest asked him if he was ticklish, “had me sit on his lap …. I didn’t like it so I left.”
Laprade’s voice broke at the point he told what happened in 2014 when he decided, after hearing that another victim had come forward, to tell the “Catholic Church [about his experience] and they told me to take a lie-detector test.”
He said he opted against doing so after someone he trusted told him that “all they are trying to do is prove me wrong.
“It wasn’t done by the police. The statute of limitations [was] up. There was nothing for me to gain to go through that, so I didn’t.”
“I was not credible,” Laprade repeated. “What upsets me right now … is they left Father Frank Santilli in that parish for how long? Has that affected any other children?”
As Laprade stepped away from the microphone, advocate Pasco Troia begged the lawmakers to understand what they had just seen: “What you are looking at is a bruised, human being … so broken, and I was the same way.”
“Before you judge me and think my words are a little harsh — realize the Roman Catholic Church, who uses God’s name as a cover to hide behind, has already paid out billions of dollars on an international scale because they have raped so many children.”
Errant Catholic priests were not the only alleged abusers accused by their alleged victims Thursday night. Raymond Brisson, 61, recounted tales of horror at the O’Rourke Children’s Center, which closed in 1979.
But as Webb readied for battle, the Rev. Bernard Healey, the lead State House lobbyist for the Catholic Diocese, and the state’s liability insurers mounted their counteroffensive.
Arguments against eliminating the statute of limitations
Among the arguments Healey submitted on behalf of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference:
“Statutes of limitations promote fairness and closure by … preventing stale claims in which evidence is lost, memories change and witnesses disappear.”
Santilli was placed on administrative leave in February after the latest in a series of accusations that date back a decade.
Victims of sexual abuse:Removal of priest accused of child molestation sparks fresh drive to let victims sue
At that time, the diocese said, Santilli had been banned from exercising public ministry or living on church property pending the outcome of an investigation.
In a subsequent statement, the diocese said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin had accepted Santilli’s resignation as pastor of St. Philip Parish and that the diocese is “cooperating fully with law enforcement.”
“Fr. Santilli’s status hasn’t changed,” diocesan spokesman Michael F. Kieloch said Thursday. “He is still prohibited from public ministry while the investigation continues.”
Webb brought with her a letter from the sister of one of Santilli’s alleged victims who committed suicide.
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In her open letter to the House Judiciary Committee, Michelle Ross, who is out of state, described her brother, David Ross, as her “Irish twin,” a cheerful child born one year and five months ahead of her who liked to play “Church Mass,” where he gave out “homemade communion [made] out of white bread.”
It was not until they were adults that Ross said she learned of David’s alleged abuse by Santilli during the period he was at Our Lady of Lourdes, in Providence, from 1979 to 1980.
She said he told no one while it was happening, switched his religion from Catholicism to Episcopalian, and “eventually became assistant head of acolytes and an active member of the congregation of St. Stephen Church in Providence. He died at age 29 from what she described as a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
‘I know there are so many reasons one chooses suicide,” Ross wrote.
“But I also believe the main contributing factor [in her brother’s case] was the sexual abuse he suffered, never recovered from and not being able to go forward with lawful and legal actions” because he was barred from doing so by the seven-year time limit then in place.
Past changes to statute of limitations
In 2019, lawmakers extended from seven to 35 years the length of time a victim of childhood sexual abuse has to sue after reaching adulthood. That gave a victim until age 53 to sue an abuser or institution.
Against institutions, however, the new 35-year rule was prospective only, except in cases where the victims did not “discover” an injury or condition caused by sexual abuse they suffered as children until many years later. In those cases, they would have seven years from the time they discovered the connection to sue.
But Ross argued: “The statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse needs to be eradicated completely and individuals as well as organizations like churches need to be held fully and financially accountable.”
The ACLU of Rhode Island is among the groups resisting that argument.
“Statutes of limitation serve an important purpose,” the ACLU wrote the lawmakers.
“They ensure that evidence is relatively fresh, and they recognize that as time passes it becomes much harder for a person to mount a defense. Memories fade, and exculpatory evidence that a person has no chance to recover ceases to exist.
“To ask a person to defend him or herself against a lawsuit like this fifty years or more after the fact imposes enormous challenges.”