Testimony: Providence diocese has paid more than $21 million to settle clergy-abuse claims

Providence Journal, Rhode Island/February 26, 2019

By Katherine Gregg

Providence — In an effort to demonstrate to Rhode Island lawmakers how seriously it takes sexual misconduct allegations, an arm of the Catholic Diocese of Providence has acknowledged paying “over $21 million in legal settlements,″ and another $2.3 million for counseling to “resolve″ more than 130 claims of abuse by clergy in church-run schools and parishes.

The diocese reported the payouts in written testimony the Rhode Island Catholic Conference filed with the House Judiciary Committee in advance of Tuesday night’s hearing on legislation — co-sponsored by 58 of 75 House members — that would extend the time for filing civil suits against the perpetrators of child sex abuse, and the institutions that employed them, from seven to 35 years.

The diocese does not spell out the time period the 130 claims encompassed, or the number of victims to whom the settlements were paid. Nor does it name the priests or church staff implicated in these long-hidden crimes.

But the diocese laid out its case for a massive rewrite of the legislation that Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee has championed in a 15-page filing with the committee submitted in recent days, at the same time as graphic accounts emerged of alleged sex abuse by clergy that the Diocese of Providence have provided the Rhode Island State Police since 2011.

One letter alleges lavish spending and gifts bestowed by an unnamed pastor on a number of young men he “sexually abused as teenagers″ while encouraging them to enter the seminary.

Another letter contains an account from a Rhode Island man who reported that a now-dead member of the clergy took him to Arcadia Park in Exeter when he was 15 years old and forced him to drink from a thermos until the clouds began to spin. He said he then woke up stripped of all of his clothes, except his boxers.

According to the letter, his was not the only complaint lodged against this unidentified member of the clergy.

The allegations in some of the other letters from the diocese to the state police were even more graphic, and they involved young girls and boys.

The diocese cites its cooperation with the state police as evidence it has taken sexual misconduct allegations seriously for years, even before The Boston Globe’s award-winning “Spotlight” series shined a light on decades of clergy sex abuse, and before Bishop Thomas J. Tobin in August 2016 signed a letter of understanding with then-Attorney General Peter Kilmartin pledging to report allegations to the state police.

But one of the heavily redacted investigative reports in the package provided to the House Judiciary Committee centers on the alleged “mistreatment” that one woman said she had received when she confronted the bishop and Robert McCarthy, the retired Massachusetts state police officer the diocese hired to investigate claims, with her previously reported tale of repeated abuse by a unnamed priest in 1958, when she was 13 years old.

The unnamed woman told the state police that “Bishop Tobin ... treated her is if she were a suspect, rather than a victim.”

Only one former priest is named in the packet: Barry Meehan, who died in 2016 while facing trial for sexual assault.

Meehan resigned as pastor of St. Timothy’s Parish in Warwick in January 2013, when the diocese announced “credible” allegations of sexual misconduct against him, dating back at least 25 years. Meehan denied “any improper activity,” according to a statement at that time from the diocese.

In its testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, the Rhode Island Catholic Conference acknowledges “our past failures to protect young people,″ but also raises “serious concern″ about the serous flaws” in McEntee’s bill to to extend the statute of limitations to 35 years, and doing so without any liability limit.

Having a “reasonable″ statute of limitations prevents “the raising of old claims in which evidence is lost, memories change and witnesses disappear” and guards against “false and misrepresented claims,″ the Catholic advocacy organization states.

Among the “serious flaws,″ according to the group:

The legislation makes no distinction between “actual perpetrators” who committed intentional acts against the victims and the “non-perpetrators who are alleged to have committed unintentional negligence.”

It provides an “unconstitutional” three-year look-back period for the filing of claims, barred now by the current seven-year statute of limitations, allegedly at odds with how the diocese reads a 1996 Rhode Island Supreme Court opinion.

As such: “The bill is not targeted at abusers or abuse but at expanding opportunities to file monetary lawsuits against against a limited set of third parties who may have served as employers or for whom an assailant may have volunteers.”

The group argues: While Massachusetts “provides victims an extended limitations period to bring claims, many defendants — like private schools, religious institutions and non-profit community organizations like the YMCA or Boy Scouts — have limited liability. ... Massachusetts law provides for a $20,000 limitation on tort liability for non-profit organizations.”

“There is [also] inherent unfairness and risk of error in asking a jury in 2019 to decide whether actions taken in 1957 or 1967 reflected a lack of due care. ... The understanding of child abuse in the mid-1960′s was not remotely comparable to the understanding of the problem today.”

While the advocates for the legislation say “the bill is needed to ‘punish perpetrators’ of abuse,″ the diocesan group argues, that opportunity already exists since “Rhode Island has no criminal statutes of limitations for first- and second-degree child molestation.”

This “bill is focused on expanding opportunities to file monetary suits against non-perpetrators.”

The hearing, expected to start around 5 p.m., will give legislative sponsors and witnesses an opportunity to present their own arguments, as a parade of past victims did last year when McEntee introduced an earlier version of her bill.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here