By JONATHAN BISSONNETTE
PROVIDENCE – A Senate bill that would extend the state’s statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse by 28 years was held for further study by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday night, but not before the committee members heard three hours of testimony from sexual abuse victims and supporters of the bill.
The legislation was introduced by District 15 (Pawtucket, North Providence) State Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush and would extend the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse claims from seven years to 35 years. The bill would also allow currently time-barred claims to be brought within three years.
“I have been working against sexual assault literally since my college days … And I have not stopped ever since,” Nesselbush said. “I am the proud sponsor of this very important bill which, if passed, will open the courthouse doors to countless survivors of childhood sexual abuse who have heretofore been denied access to justice because of our very restrictive statute of limitations.”
“We all run for office to try to make a difference in people’s lives and this is a bill on which you can really make a difference for people,” Nesselbush said. “I always say that every generation has its calling and the opportunity to ease the pain of human suffering. Well, ladies and gentlemen of this committee, this is an opportunity to ease the pain of human suffering.”
The senator dismissed the notion that the bill was specifically targeting the Catholic Church, saying that it instead treats all organizations equally and that a claim against the Church would be just as applicable as one against a school, sports team, or club.
Saying the testimony she’s heard has left her “speechless, tearful, and basically a little sick in my stomach,” Nesselbush implored the committee to “please speak up and discuss this issue with our leadership so that somehow we can get this bill, if possible, taken care of early in our calendar and in our schedule so that it’s not imperiled by those last days of session when everything just gets so tight and so difficult.”
District 36 (Narragansett, North Kingstown) State Sen. James C. Sheehan said there should not be a statute of limitations on justice.
“They need our help and unlike the situation they were in, whether it’s a rectory or at a Y or a Boys’ Club, wherever it is, those voices cried out for help and they could not receive the help that they needed in their moment of crisis,” Sheehan said. “But we are in a very unique position because we can allow help, we can provide that help going forward so that there won’t be other victims crying out.”
Among the victims who testified during Tuesday night’s hearing was Sydney Keen of Jamestown, who recounted her Feb. 5, 2012 rape at the hands of a then-22-year-old Warwick man identified as Shawn Manchester. She said Manchester pleaded guilty and she was “very lucky to be able to come forward relatively soon after the fact.”
“Ever since then, I’ve been in intensive therapy on and off and through that process. I came to realize that was not the first incident I had lived through. This is an example of those suppressed memories, it was so deeply suppressed that I was not conscious of it until years into my therapy process,” she said.
“There are so many people like me who have survived various acts of assault and have never been able to speak of it, may never be able to speak of it, and certainly not for years or decades to come,” Keen continued. “For my part, I have just barely passed the point where the statute of limitations has expired. Now that I have actually gotten the courage to do more about the second case, and do something about the first case, I can’t.”
“I cannot comprehend why anybody would oppose a piece of legislation like this,” she added.
While neither a victim of sexual assault, nor an expert on the matter, Judith Zimmer of Warwick testified that she’s a grandmother who fears for her two grandchildren amid the seemingly constant threats of gun violence and sexual abuse.
“Child abuse of any kind is unconscionable, but child sexual abuse is so odious that it’s in a category of its own … I find it mind-boggling that the General Assembly has not yet acted on extending the statute of limitations for these crimes. I find it mind-boggling that any entity would oppose it and I find it disgusting and outrageous that the only apparent reason for opposition are monetary consequences,” Zimmer said.
“One would think that any institution that has even one pedophile in its ranks would want to make sure that the predator would never again have the chance to harm another child and that isn’t the case,” she added. “The crimes of these monsters have been ignored, protected, covered up, and permitted to continue for far too long.”
Marci Hamilton, the founder and chief executive officer of Child USA, a Philadelphia-based organization dedicated to analyzing, informing, and supporting laws throughout the country to protect children, also testified during Tuesday’s hearing. She said that the average age for a person coming forward as a child sex abuse victim is 52 years old.
One-third of victims never come forward, while another third only come forward during childhood, she said.
“So we’re talking about victims who under the current statute in Rhode Island have no shot of being able to come forward and the ones who struggle the most are the family victims...” Hamilton said. “Your statute of limitations right now is a gift for many child predators, they get the benefit of being able to move on to the next child because the statute of limitations has expired. What this bill will do on the civil side is that it shifts the cost of abuse from the victim and the state to the ones who caused it.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman and District 31 (Warwick, Cranston) State Sen. Erin Lynch Prata said she was struck by how almost everyone who testified on Tuesday night is now “wildly successful professionally, which is amazing to me that through all that you have gone through, for so many years, to an extent that you are all able to persevere and come here and speak so intelligently about it.”
“I do think the emotions ran the gamut tonight from anger to sadness to frustration and we do understand that,” she said.
Lynch Prata asked Nesselbush to continue to work to “tighten the language” of the bill and is hopeful to see the legislation back before the committee “sooner rather than later.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette