Childhood victims of rape and other sexual misconduct whose deadline to hold their perpetrators legally liable has long passed are one step closer to accessing the justice system, as the Colorado Senate on Thursday approved a bill to allow survivors' claims to go forward regardless of when the abuse occurred.
"Sexual abuse is one of the most painful things to endure, and causes some of the most long-term and expensive medical and mental health care," said Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, the sponsor of Senate Bill 88. "What these victims have been coming and asking us for is the ability to hold accountable their abusers and the institutions that actively covered up the abuse."
Currently, childhood victims of sexual abuse generally have six years after they turn 18 to file a civil lawsuit against an abuser for their injury, and two years to sue an institution, such as a church or youth program. Gov. Jared Polis last month signed into law an elimination of the civil statute of limitations going forward for both adult and childhood survivors of sexual misconduct, but SB 88 would address victims who are time-barred from filing claims.
The bill passed the Senate 31-4, with Republican Sens. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, Bob Rankin of Carbondale and Larry Liston of Colorado Springs voting no.
Gardner signaled he had concerns over the bill's constitutionality, as it would create a new legal claim for past conduct that the statute of limitations previously protected.
"I am loathe to argue the case for these vile perpetrators. And guess what? I'm not," Gardner said. "If you can reach back and say that if the law wasn't something in 1971, it was something else, then what else can we say the law was in 1971?"
"Child rape was not acceptable yesterday," replied Danielson. "Child rape was never an acceptable way to treat a child."
Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, who is the chair of the Judiciary Committee and himself an attorney, believed the bill advanced a compelling public policy goal, and the courts would find it constitutional.
"It attempts to address a legitimate governmental interest: holding wrongdoers, both individuals and institutions, accountable for their actions, and provide a remedy for those victims who otherwise have no recourse," he said. Laws passed by the General Assembly are presumed constitutional in Colorado, and a court must find otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.
Under SB 88, victims would only have a claim against an organization if the entity knew or should have known about a risk to children and took no action to address it. The bill to open up claims of current survivors is the first to pass a chamber of the General Assembly since 2006, when a measure to create a two-year "lookback window" for the filing of lawsuits passed the Senate by 18-17.
The proposal that year followed revelations of child abuse by Catholic clergy, and the Catholic Church and other institutions ultimately succeeded in defeating the attempt to alter or abolish the civil statute of limitations. As it did then, the church still requests that lawmakers treat private institutions and public entities, like schools, as equally liable for abuse that occurs on their watch.
"Senate Bill 88 — which claims to seek accountability — should not create a standard of accountability for private institutions to which the legislators are not willing to hold the state and other public entities to. We are glad the state senate affirmed today that public and private institutions need to be treated equally," the Colorado Catholic Conference, which represents the Archdiocese of Denver and the dioceses of Colorado Springs and Pueblo, said in a statement on Wednesday.
The conference's comments followed the Senate's decision to eliminate the caps on damages a victim could obtain from a public institution.
According to ChildUSA, a think tank that focuses on child abuse, 23 states this year have introduced legislation to open a "lookback window" to revive time-barred claims. The average age at which childhood victims disclose their sex abuse is 52. Willingness to disclose depends on such factors as cultural norms, the severity of the abuse and the victim's relationship to the perpetrator.
Proponents argue that allowing victims to sue their perpetrator or an institution that covered up the abuse would allow the medical and psychological costs to be placed on the responsible parties, and also may uncover further evidence about the extent of the coverup.
SB 88 came one year after Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, asked a Senate committee to kill a bill she sponsored to remove the statute of limitations for future victims because, she said, she also wanted a remedy for current victims. That legislation, unlike its 2006 predecessor, was not largely motivated by clergy abuse.
SB 88 will now head to the House of Representatives.