Abuse and Statutes of Limitation: Keeping Our Hands on the Guardrails of Values and Justice

Rhode Islanders should wish that Republican state representative Brian Newberry (North Smithfield, Burrillville) was expressing the opinion of most elected officials with his statement on the idea of retroactively removing the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits related to sexual abuse of minors:

State Rep. Brian Newberry, a lawyer and former House minority leader, said Ruggerio’s concerns had merit. He tweeted: “Insurance issues in situations like this should not be overlooked. Without [statutes of limitations] insurance costs skyrocket and/or options become scarce. Goes well beyond this specific situation. Willingness of government to ‘alter the deal’ sends its own signal.”

We rightly recoil from the thought of child abuse, and the possibility of its lifelong harm to victims makes a strong case for allowing civil action for more than seven years.   However, insurance premiums are just a straightforward example of the ways in which the “willingness of government to ‘alter the deal'” can disrupt society.  Obviously, this isn’t to say that the disturbed people who’ve abused children made rational decisions based on the law at the time, but social standards change constantly, and the knowledge that a legislature might apply future standards to actions we’ve taken in the past should be terrifying.

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The subsequent direction taken by Ted Nesi’s WPRI article further illustrates how easily reasoned consideration of legal principles can fall away when these emotional chords are struck:

Passing legislation was not the only demand made at Monday’s news conference. Speakers also called for the attorney general to open a grand-jury investigation into the Providence diocese along the lines of what was done in Pennsylvania.

Democrat Peter Neronha – the favorite to succeed Attorney General Peter Kilmartin in January – said in a statement he supports extending the statute of limitations …

However, Neronha pointed out that Pennsylvania’s attorney general has a tool that Rhode Island’s attorney general does not: a state law which allows a grand jury to issue a report even when no criminal indictment is issued.

“I have long believed that such a statute should exist in Rhode Island, and it would assist the type of investigation called for here,” he said. “Absent such a statute, under current Rhode Island law, absent an indictment, it is very likely that the findings and any recommendations of the grand jury could not be released publicly.”

There may be sufficient evidence, locally, to initiate a grand jury investigation, but the simple co-religiosity of the Rhode Island Catholic Church with the Pennsylvania Catholic Church is not it.  Beyond this missing piece, Neronha is implying that such investigations are less valuable without the ability to release findings even where no indictable discoveries are made, and that should be, again, terrifying.  The circumstances in which grand jury reports ought to be public documents is a question worthy of public debate, but we should hesitate to change the law explicitly in order to give the government a way to create scandal as a last ditch punishment.  Nerhonha’s assessment suggests one of two things:

  1. A desire to dig up dirt on a politically disfavored organization, or
  2. A back-door way to evade the intent of the law (with statutes of limitation).

By all means, let’s develop a legal regime that reflects our values and ensures justice, but as we do so, let’s not allow the emotions of a particular issue to undermine the value of due process and lead us to broader injustices.

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