Rhode Island Statute of Limitations

In late August of 2018 victims of sexual abuse and lawmakers gathered together at the State House in Providence to call for Rhode Island’s civil statute of limitations on child sex crimes to be extended from seven years to 35.

The call to action followed a tumultuous negotiation between a growing number of lawmakers and a substantial defense campaign organized by the Catholic Diocese of Providence. The initial bill called for total repeal, but on the last night of the session in June, a compromise was proposed that would have extended Rhode Island’s statute of limitations from 7 to 15 years. However the church, “refused to back any compromise that opened doors to lawsuits on past abuses,” leaving House leadership to never put the bill to a vote.

Although there is strong support to extend the statute, not just in Rhode Island, but through out the nation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island cautioned lawmakers against complete eradication.

“We recognize and fully appreciate the various social and psychological factors that may inhibit a victim of sexual abuse from coming forward promptly with allegations of such crimes, and so there is much to be said for extending the current relatively short statute of limitations for conduct that occurred when the alleged victim was a minor,” said ACLU executive director Steven Brown. However, “statutes of limitation serve an important purpose,” Brown said. “They ensure that evidence is relatively fresh, and recognize that as time passes, it becomes much harder for a person to mount a defense. Memories fade, and exculpatory evidence … ceases to exist.”

Pennsylvania Statute of Limitations

In the same month that victims and lawmakers were gathered at the State House in Rhode Island calling for change, a pejorative grand jury report was released in Pennsylvania implicating multiple dioceses of “sexually abusing thousands of young victims over many decades”. The law in Pennsylvania can make legal action elusive for many victims of sexual abuse. When it comes to criminal charges, they can only be brought under the statute of limitations in effect at the time of the crime. NBC10 in Philadelphia reported, “For those alleging abuse in the 1970s, that means two years from when it happened. For others, it means two years after they turned 18. Current state law allows prosecutors to file criminal charges before the one-time child victim turns 50 and for victims to seek civil damages in court before they turn 30.”

Current laws in Pennsylvania have hindered people like Frank Finnegan, who was allegedly molested by a priest 50 years ago, from obtaining any justice. Finnegan couldn’t pursue criminal charges in his case, because the priest that allegedly molested him had long since passed away, and within civil court a victim has only until they turn 30 to pursue a civil case.

However, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro continues to advocate for reform on the criminal side saying, “it’s unacceptable that Washington D.C. Cardinal Wuerl oversaw and participated in a systematic cover up of clergy abuse when he was a Bishop overseeing the Pittsburgh Diocese.” The Attorney General also tweeted, “Victims throughout our Commonwealth & our country have stood up & spoken their truths – many of whom can’t seek justice under Pennsylvania law.”

A Nationwide Push

Advocates for extensions of the statute-of-limitation laws continue to pick up steam. Time Magazine reports that, fifteen states “took up bills this year that would change statute-of-limitations laws, making it easier for victims of child sex abuse to seek justice”. As more and more headlines surface regarding this issue the movement to change the limitations grows stronger and stronger, and many legal pundits are predicting an eventual nationwide change. For people like Frank Finnegan, this means hope for justice. However, for institutions like the Catholic Church, this could mean an exponential increase in civil and potentially criminal cases against them, exposing an ever-growing tainted underbelly of an institution that was once universally trusted and revered.


If you or a loved one has experienced any form of sexual abuse, within or beyond Rhode Island and Massachusetts statute-of-limitations contact the lawyers at Dana and Dana today. We can and will help you get the results you deserve. Call (401) 217-3449 or fill out a contact form for help right now.