A bill to give future survivors of childhood sexual abuse and other types of misconduct unlimited time to take their perpetrators to court passed out of the House Judiciary Committee by a vote of 10-1 on Tuesday night, but only after a prolonged off-microphone conference to narrow the scope of the measure.
As written, Senate Bill 73, which passed the Senate unanimously earlier this month, would take child sex abuse and a range of other sexual offenses against both adults and children and remove the civil statute of limitations for all. Under current law, a child who is sexually abused generally has six years after they turn 18 to sue their abuser and two years to sue a third party, such as an employer, a church or a youth organization.
Judiciary Committee members, however, were alarmed about subjecting perpetrators of less traumatic sex crimes, like indecent exposure, to a lifetime of liability.
"Statutes of limitations are pretty sacrosanct things to lawyers," observed the committee chair, Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora. However, "there’s nothing that due process requires for statutes of limitations. It’s a policy choice.”
Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Adams County, acknowledged to Colorado Politics she had an amendment prepared to cap the extension of the statute of limitations to 30 years. Last year, Benavidez was the only no vote in the House of Representatives on a virtually identical measure. At the time, she aired concerns about the breadth of behavior covered as well as the limitless window to sue.
"I didn't have the appetite for amendments, but then we talked through and it took a lot of dialogue trying to figure out what was bothering them," said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, one of SB73's sponsors, about the conference with committee members during a recess.
The other sponsor, Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, said bluntly: "We had a couple moments where we thought we would lose the bill."
After reconvening the meeting, the committee accepted amendments to apply the unlimited window to sue only in instances of felonies and class 1 misdemeanors, committed for purposes of sexual gratification or abuse. Advocates agreed the change preserved the intent of the measure.
Benavidez credited the compelling testimony of survivors and the accord to exclude lesser crimes as the reason for discarding her amendment.
"That made me feel much more comfortable. I was worried that we were way out ahead of all other states. No other jurisdiction has a blanket no-statute-of-limitations for civil matters of sexual misconduct," she said.
Last year's version of SB 73 cleared the House of Representatives nearly unanimously, only for a Senate committee to kill it in the final days of the session. It was the first major effort since 2006 toward removing the time limit for survivors to legally hold perpetrators and institutions accountable. Then, as now, lawmakers learned about the lifelong effects of childhood abuse on victims, including increased risk of suicidality and substance abuse disorders.
Committee members heard from victims — sometimes sobbing and inconsolable — who described their anger and their pain.
“You need to know that we call ourselves survivors because so few of us do," testified Mary-Katherine Brooks Fleming, whose perpetrator was a faculty member at Georgetown University. “I lost a job that I loved three years ago because I am still not over what happened to me as an 18-year-old."
"My perpetrator is still out there. I want to repeat that: my perpetrator is still in this state. He may be hurting other children. This is what this current law allows," a man told lawmakers.
“Do you all believe me yet? Do you all believe me yet?” sobbed Beth Ferrier, a victim of comedian Bill Cosby.
“I know it’s not easy testifying, and I believe you," replied Weissman, the committee chair.
SB 73 has the backing of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault and other victim advocacy groups, as well as a consistent group of childhood sex abuse survivors who have repeatedly shared their stories to legislative committees in hopes of passing pro-victim policies.
Advocates for removing the civil statute of limitations pointed to the fact that the average age for childhood victims to come forward about their abuse is 52, and that civil litigation will protect future victims by preventing predators from running out the clock on their misdeeds and escaping accountability. The ability to sue for damages can also shift the costs of sexual abuse, which can include therapy for the survivor, onto the perpetrator.
"We may be making a policy choice here that is uncommon among the other states, but I personally don’t care too much about that," said Weissman. "I care about doing what I think is right for the victims of Colorado."
The committee's vice chair, Rep. Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood, asked witnesses whether knowledge of the time window to sue, even an extended window, would have prompted survivors to come forward earlier.
"I suppose if I had the mental capacity and I knew that I only had six years left to do something about it, that might inspire me move faster," responded Jill Brogdon. "But I don't feel like that burden should be on me."
Jeb Barrett, the Denver leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, summed up the fear, shame or difficultly processing trauma that leads to delayed disclosures: "Could I have reported these things? No. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, was the lone dissenting vote. No witnesses spoke in opposition. The bill now heads to the House floor for a second reading.