Accused Catholic priests

Photographs of Catholic priests who worked in Colorado and also had at least one public report of child sexual abuse are on display at The Denver Press Club on Nov. 13.

A bill to give childhood sex abuse survivors unlimited time to sue their abusers and the institutions that harbor them has reappeared in the General Assembly for the first time in more than a decade.

House Bill 1296 would eliminate the civil statute of limitations for victims who were sexually abused as children. Currently, victims have generally until the age of 24 to sue their abusers, and only until age 20 to sue the employers or institutions that harbored the abusers. The bill would eliminate the gap between vicarious liability, as it is known, and individual liability. Lawsuits would also be allowed against perpetrators who are deceased.

“The goal is to protect people going forward at this point,” said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, the sponsor of the bill. “As someone who was the victim of sexual assault when I was 14, this doesn’t help me. I can’t now go after my abuser and, while I have my own feelings on that, I really want to make sure that going forward we put a stop to this.”

If enacted, only victims whose statute of limitations has not run out as of Jan. 1, 2021, would be able to sue for incidents of abuse in the past. Otherwise, the bill will apply prospectively.

The proposal comes in the wake of an October report from the attorney general’s office which found that at least 43 priests had sexually abused at least 166 children in Colorado’s Catholic dioceses since 1950. The investigators, led by former U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer, found “a strong culture of reluctance to report serious crimes against children if doing so might harm the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church or the career of a fellow priest.”

Of those cases, only one resulted in a referral to law enforcement for investigation, having not yet exceeded the statute of limitations.

Michaelson Jenet said that her proposal was not prompted by the Troyer report, and instead was the product of longstanding work by groups such as the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Child USA, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, reports that the average age for child survivors to come forward about their abuse is 52. Twenty-seven state legislatures have introduced proposals this year to reform the statute of limitations, and 14 states are considering a “lookback” window that allows victims whose statutes of limitations have expired to file suit.

Victims' groups have advocated for civil lawsuits as a way to force institutions to disclose what they knew about abuse allegations. Apart from criminal proceedings, which have a higher burden of proof, civil suits allow victims to collect damages from perpetrators or those responsible for employing them.

“Removes the statute of limitations? I continue to support it!” wrote Andrew Romanoff in a text message. Romanoff, a Democratic Senate candidate, was the speaker of the state House of Representatives in 2006 during the last major attempt at giving victims more time to sue.

During that time, The Denver Post reported on lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Denver from two dozen abuse survivors of Father Harold Robert White and Father Leonard Abercrombie. In the 2006 legislative session, bills to extend the civil statute of limitations and open a lookback window died in the last days of the session.

A related bill to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse was signed into law.

Former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Coal Creek Canyon, who sponsored the lookback window, called HB1296 a “big improvement on current law.”

“I imagine there will be the same opposition as there was to my lookback window since this bill allows for civil penalties against deceased members of an organization,” she said on Thursday. “It really goes to the heart of what did the organization know, when did they know it and what did they do about it?”

During that session, then-Archbishop of Denver Charles J. Chaput waged an open war on the bills, telling followers that they “exist for one reason only: to target the Catholic community.” Priests in many parishes took the unusual step of reading a letter from Chaput during Saturday and Sunday Mass condemning the extension of the statute of limitations and encouraging parishioners to contact their legislators in opposition.

In 2008, Rep. Gwyn Green, D-Golden, tried again to get rid of the statute of limitations, but her bill died in a House committee. A devout Catholic, Green died in 2018.

“I know that my former colleague, the late Rep. Gwyn Green, would feel vindicated by this effort to ensure perpetrators and responsible entities face their victims,” said former House Majority Leader Alice Madden, D-Boulder, on Thursday.

The Archdiocese issued a statement saying that it "has been a leader in its efforts to make significant reforms over the last 30 years to make sure our children are protected, including a zero-tolerance policy, mandatory background checks, mandatory training on how to prevent, identify and report abuse, and improved screening processes for our seminaries. The success of these efforts is evidenced by no known claims of sexual abuse of a minor by an archdiocesan priest in 20 years."

The Troyer report found that the last instance of known abuse from a priest in the Archdiocese was in 1998. However, investigators found that the Archdiocese's reporting of past cases to police was unreliable in the years since, in part due to confusion about whether the law required it.

Last year, the Archdiocese and the dioceses of Pueblo and Colorado Springs opened an independently-administered compensation program for victims of past abuse to submit their claims. The deadline to file was in January.

Michaelson Jenet said that that among the groups involved in drafting the bill, “the general feeling is that it has failed each time because of the strong desire to open up past claims that wouldn’t be covered under this new law.”

With HB1296, public employees and public institutions would not receive a waiver of governmental immunity. Claims against government entities are capped or barred in order to protect taxpayers from funding large judgments or settlements at the expense of government services.

Michaelson Jenet said she would be opposed to making her bill apply to public institutions, and is doubtful that such a change would adhere to the bill’s single-subject requirement.

“We are trying to take one step at a time,” she said. “While public institutions may not be a part of this conversation, they may end up as a part of another conversation.”

The other sponsors of the bill are Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta; Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver; and Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose. In December, Colorado Politics found that one in five members of the current General Assembly supported extending the statute of limitations in principle.

The bill will appear first in the House Judiciary Committee, likely in early March.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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