The Colorado Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill that would give future survivors of childhood sexual abuse unlimited time to sue their perpetrators and the institutions that harbored them, one year after a Senate committee killed a similar bill because it failed to go far enough.
"We have to stop this cycle. And the way we stop it is by holding people accountable," said Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, during debate.
Senate Bill 73 would recategorize several types of offenses, including sexual abuse of children, as sexual misconduct, and then remove the civil statute of limitations beginning in January 2022. Currently, childhood victims generally have six years after they turn 18 to file a civil liability suit against their perpetrator, and two years to sue an institution, such as an employer.
Before the vote, Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, disclosed that her grandfather had abused her mother until age 13. Pettersen's grandmother reportedly did not believe her daughter, and even suggested she may have confused the abuse with something she saw in a movie.
"She, I believe, did not want to acknowledge that a human being is capable of this, let alone her husband," Pettersen described. Her grandfather died of cancer a decade ago.
"But my mom never had justice. She never got to confront him. She wasn’t believed to begin with," added Pettersen.
SB73 would not provide access to the court system for those whose abuse occurred farther in the past, which was a point of contention during the measure's consideration last year. In 2020, the House of Representatives passed a virtually identical bill by a wide margin, but one of its Senate sponsors, Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, asked a committee to vote it down in the final days of the legislative session.
She and other senators believed the bill performed a disservice to past victims by failing to include a "lookback window," or a period of time for people to file claims whose statute of limitations has already expired.
At the time, the bill's other proponents had concerns about the constitutionality of a lookback window. However, this year, there is a second bill to create that opportunity for past survivors through an alternative legal means. That measure, Senate Bill 88, is destined for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.
On Monday, the Senate spent time airing the concerns of Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, who requested SB73 go to the Judiciary Committee for a second hearing. The bill passed out of the Health and Human Services Committee last week by a vote of 7-0.
"A lot of questions didn’t get asked and a lot of things didn’t happen," he said.
Members of the health committee, none of whom are lawyers, took offense to Gardner's characterization of the hearing.
“This is insulting. We did our homework," said Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, who said she called attorneys to discuss the bill. “We did our jobs, now you do your jobs.”
"I know how to read," added Fields. "Just because some asked questions and some didn’t, didn’t mean there was less attention to making sure that we’re doing right by the state of Colorado."
Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, who is one of the bill sponsors along with Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, opposed the notion of making survivors of sexual abuse testify at a second emotional hearing before a different committee.
“Why would we intentionally put them through the trauma of relaying their experiences again in public to the legislators in a different committee when we already asked that and it’s been done?” she asked.
Also speaking out in opposition was Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, who is himself a member of the Judiciary Committee. He said the bill had a fair hearing already and was "long overdue."
The Senate defeated Gardner's motion to return SB73 to the Judiciary Committee, as well as an amendment to shorten the statute of limitations from the current six years after reaching age 18 to 20 years.
Colorado lawmakers first attempted to lift the civil statute of limitations specifically for child sexual abuse in 2006, following disclosures of abuse involving Catholic priests. While the General Assembly succeeded in removing the criminal statute of limitations for future offenses, the question of civil liability dragged into the final days of the session.
Due to intense lobbying from the Catholic Church, disagreements about liability for public employees — such as schoolteachers — and the fate of a lookback window, the legislation failed. Although it resurfaced briefly in 2008, the legislation did not make a serious comeback until 2020.
On Tuesday, Gardner said he would support SB73 after reconsideration. He indicated he had lingering concerns about liability for organizations that may have to answer for abuse claims decades in the future, but acknowledged popular opinion is on the side of elimination. Thirteen states and territories have eliminated the civil statute of limitations for some or all types of civil claims, according to ChildUSA.
"The unemotional and rational conclusion I reach is that as a matter of public policy, this is where we are. As a state, this is what we have decided," he said.
SB73 now heads to the House of Representatives.