Some Colorado state lawmakers are contemplating legislation in response to calls to extend the statute of limitations for civil cases involving child sex abuse.
“The next step will be to take away the predator-friendly statute of limitations, which prevents those hidden victims from gaining access to the proven American justice system,” said Jeb Barrett on Friday at a press conference in Denver.
Two days earlier, Attorney General Phil Weiser released a report that found at least 166 children were likely sexually abused by priests in the Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo dioceses of the Catholic Church from 1950 to the present.
Former U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer led the investigation, which determined that only one case contained allegations within the criminal statute of limitations.
Barrett, the volunteer Denver leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was joined by other sexual assault survivors in asking for Colorado’s legislators to give victims new legal tools to hold their abusers accountable.
“The only way we can keep children safe in the state of Colorado from sexual abuse in any institution is through a retroactive civil window that allows survivors to come forward when they are ready,” said Joelle Casteix, who sued a Catholic diocese in California after her own alleged abuse. “Prospectively lifting the statute of limitations does not work.”
The General Assembly in 2016 extended the criminal statute of limitations from 10 to 20 years for sexual assault and rape against children. The legislation only applied to those offenses committed after July 1 of that year.
Colorado’s civil statue of limitations is six years after the victim turns 18.
Troyer’s report relied on information the dioceses voluntarily handed over to investigators, and the authors uncovered 22 additional incidents of abuse on their own.
The report found no verified cases of abuse after 1998, which Casteix found dubious.
"We can be sure that abuse did not suddenly disappear. What were the roles of later bishops and later archbishops across the state?" she asked.
Weiser said that the Troyer report was the result of a negotiation between the church and his office, as well as his predecessor, Cynthia Coffman.
“We in Colorado don’t have the sort of authority that Pennsylvania does to have a grand jury,” he said, referring to the two-year investigation of six Pennsylvania dioceses.
Barrett said that because the church did not have to comply with a subpoena in disclosing its known cases of abuse, “this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
E-mails and text messages were sent to over a dozen legislative offices over the weekend, including the Democratic and Republican leadership in both chambers, to determine where member of the General Assembly stood on the calls for action.
Speaker of the House K.C. Becker, D-Boulder, said in a statement that lawmakers “must ensure that this never happens again.
“It will take time for everyone to fully comprehend what this report has uncovered and to completely investigate the entire scope of abuse that clergy perpetrated in our state,” she wrote. “We are exploring how we can help hold abusers accountable and will be having discussions with advocates, survivors and stakeholders to see what actions would be appropriate.”
Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, co-authored a bill earlier this year — since signed into law — that extended the statute of limitations for prosecuting mandated reporters who fail to report child abuse to three years. Michaelson Jenet said that she has been working on legislation related to the Troyer report, but not in response to it.
She said, however, that it is “too early in the process to share the details.”
Only one member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, endorsed a change in the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse. He said that he has met with victim advocates to talk about potential legislation and is considering such a bill.
“In criminal prosecutions for sex assaults against a child, we have already removed the statute of limitations altogether. For civil cases, the legislature needs to consider legislation that would extend the statute of limitations in cases of child sex abuse and adult sexual assaults in some way as well,” Gardner said.
Earlier this year, California, New Jersey and New York all expanded their statutes of limitations to file civil lawsuits.
New York and New Jersey raised the age at which victims can sue to 55. California’s age limit is now 40, up from 26. California also suspended its statute of limitations for three years, giving survivors of all ages the option to sue.
'Fair to everyone'
Earlier this month, the Catholic Church opened a compensation fund for victims of clergy abuse. Washington, D.C.-based attorneys Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros independently evaluate claimants’ cases and award money without direction from the dioceses.
“It’s really about the acknowledgement that this happened to them,” Biros said after the report’s release. “The validation and verification that yes, we’re independent administrators and we’re listening to you. We’re looking at the documents and we’re saying, ‘Yep, this happened to you. You’re eligible. And we’re going to offer you some compensation.’”
While Casteix said that she does not judge the survivors who choose to seek money from the fund, she “highly encourage[s] everyone to be terribly skeptical,” adding that the procedures “deliberately require the victim to sign away their civil rights.”
Barrett was equally blunt.
“That compensation fund is really a means of trying to siphon off the hidden victims out there” who are precluded from suing now due to the statute of limitations.
Although participation in the program is voluntary, accepting compensation means that victims cannot file suit, even if the legislature later changes the statute of limitations.
A statement from the Archdiocese of Denver refrained from endorsing any loosening of current law.
“We are not in a position to comment on hypothetical legislation,” a spokesperson wrote. “In general, statutes of limitations exist for a reason. We’d hope that any proposed changes would be considered in a manner that is consistent and fair to everyone.”
Biros stated that victims could hypothetically make a claim through the compensation fund while awaiting action by the General Assembly.
“If the statute changes and an individual then has the option of a lawsuit or our program, they can certainly come into the program and wait to see what our determination is and how much compensation is being offered,” she said.
All claims to the fund administrators must be postmarked by Jan. 31, 2020.
The legislative session begins on Jan. 8.