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.

In a decision that shocked and angered proponents of the measure, Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, asked a Senate committee on Friday to kill a bill that would give unlimited time for future childhood sex abuse survivors to sue their perpetrators and the institutions that harbored them. The State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee complied, voting 5-0 to lay it over until September.

“Frankly, I was pissed,” said Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who sponsored the bill with Gonzales. He said he had no idea until Gonzales began her testimony what she was going to do. His own pitch to committee members was a request for passage.

“I think it’s important that we stand up and give those young people who have been so traumatized and have been afraid to say anything, give them a voice and listen to them,” he testified. “I think the only way we can stop abuse of children is to let the perpetrator know, someday you will be punished.”

House Bill 1296 would have redefined sex abuse of children and various other crimes as sexual misconduct, and would have eliminated the civil statute of limitations going forward for those offenses. Victims generally have six years under current law to sue their perpetrator after turning 18, and two years to sue an institution, such as an employer. The measure passed out of the House of Representatives when the legislature reconvened in late May, with only a single no vote.

Coram said that when he saw HB 1296 advance out of the House two weeks ago but not receive a Senate committee hearing until Friday, “you have a pretty good idea that something’s up. But I had no indication of what was up.”

“Watered down”

The last major attempt at giving sex abuse victims unlimited time to sue occurred in 2006. Then, like now, the bill died in the final days of the session. The Catholic Church was instrumental in fueling the opposition, with then-Archbishop Charles J. Chaput arguing that the measure was prejudiced toward Catholics.

“This policy has a long history in our state,” testified Raana Simmons, the director of policy for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “This is the third time in the last 15 years that this policy has been before this body and the third time this body will decide to take no action to create a pathway for survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual assault so that they may access the single system that can provide them with the resources they need to recover from trauma."

Simmons, who was the only witness to testify, said Gonzales told her on Thursday that her plan was to kill it.

“I don’t know that any one person is responsible for this decision-making other than Julie,” she said.

Speaking after Coram, Gonzales said she was not willing to pass a bill that did not include a “lookback window,” a period of time for victims whose statute of limitations has expired to file suits regardless of when the abuse occurred.

“I’m not willing to pass a bill that lets the perpetrators off the hook. And I believe that this legislation no longer goes far enough in protecting those who have suffered unspeakable abuse,” she said. “I will not settle for watered down justice that excludes countless victims from seeking recourse. I believe we have to do better.”

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, appeared taken aback, and indicated that he was prepared to pass the bill as it stood before the committtee.

“I guess I’m having trouble understanding,” he said. “I don’t understand why you're asking me to [kill] this bill. There’s no cost. It seems like a good and reasonable bill.”

Committee Chair Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, responded that there is nothing wrong with HB 1296 “on paper.” However, “under no circumstances would it be retroactive or retrospective. And that really concerns me personally.”

After the request to postpone, Coram told the committee, “I certainly do not support this action today.”

The bill’s sponsors, which included Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, and Matt Soper, R-Delta, told their House colleagues previously that they deliberately excluded a lookback window because they believed it was the source of the 2006 bill’s downfall. They also cited legal guidance that the Colorado constitution prohibits retroactive legislation, except in narrow instances for public policy reasons.

“What I fear personally about if this bill were to pass is that [a lookback window] could never happen in Colorado,” said Foote, “because the legislature would have spoken and said the only thing that can happen is prospective conduct.”

Michaelson Jenet said she heard from a lobbyist that the committee would kill the bill. She sent a text message to Gonzales begging her not to go through with it, but said Gonzales never responded.

“I am really devastated,” said Michaelson Jenet emphatically after the vote. Every time the statute of limitations measure gets defeated, “that means there are other people whose clock is ticking and who are losing their opportunity at getting justice. And we’ve done it again.”

Possibility of a stronger bill?

Gonzales referred questions to the Senate’s Democratic staff. Communications director Bella Combest said the fear was the General Assembly only had "one bite at the apple," and attempting to pass a lookback window later on its own was a questionable undertaking.

"I think that based on a couple bills and how they've gone over this session, [Gonzales] really wants to hold a tighter lane and stop accepting these more compromised provisions," Combest said. She added that Gonzales had been voicing concerns about the lookback window all along. Multiple people involved with the bill did not recall that.

Lobbyist Ted Trimpa supported the lookback window and agreed that the legislature declaring through the bill that it would only address future instances of abuse would close off the possibility of ever ligitating past cases.

"This bill was the Catholic Church's wet dream," he said. "For all those people that experienced sexual abuse over those 20, 30, 40, 50 years seeking some form of justice, some way to have their voice heard, now they're told 'case closed.' How is that helping current victims of sexual abuse? It's not."

Jeb Barrett, the Denver leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was involved in the group that created HB1296 and lobbied for the passage of the 2006 legislation. He was similarly dejected at the outcome.

“That pisses me off,” Barrett said. “I think it’s sad for the state of Colorado that that committee was not able to take one more step toward justice for victims and survivors, especially those that are going to be abused this year and next year and have no recourse.”

HB 1296 had only one public opponent: the Colorado Catholic Conference. Compared to the 2006 effort, the church's advocacy was muted, in part due to the absence of a lookback window. Months before the session, Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office released a report documenting at least 166 children who were likely abused by at least 43 Catholic priests in Colorado since 1950. The work on HB1926, however, began before the report came out.

CHILD USA, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, reports the average age for a childhood sex abuse survivor to come forward is age 52. Colorado was one of 15 states this year with legislation to eliminate the civil statute of limitations. Sixteen states had proposals to open a lookback period, and New York and California opened their own windows in the past year.

Former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Coal Creek Canyon, who was the chief proponent of the statute of limitations extension and lookback window in 2006, was hopeful that a wider-ranging bill could be in store for next year. 

“I don’t know why they changed their mind on that, but hopefully next year they'll bring a strong bill forward,” she said. “Nibbling around the edges on this while there are children at risk does not seem to be the right thing to do. So hopefully we’ll be looking at a strong bill next year.”

In an email, Foote, who is not running for the Senate in this year's election, said he hoped the sponsors would bring back the bill in 2021 with a lookback window.

Simmons, the CCASA public policy director, closed her comments to the committee by noting that many supporters of HB1296 had been asking the legislature to act repeatedly since 2006.

“I had a survivor tell me today that I don’t have what it takes to pass this policy. And that broke my heart,” she told senators. “But you know what? It’s not my job to tell that survivor, ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s yours.”

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