Bill Lifts Time Limit for Sex Abuse Suits
Victims Would Get Two Years to Seek Damages in Old Cases

By Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News [Michigan]
June 3, 2004

About the bill

A bill under consideration in the Michigan Legislature could dramatically alter the time frame in which victims of sexual abuse could seek damages against their assailants.

Adults who were sexually abused as children but missed the time frame to file a civil suit would get a two-year window to file for damages.

Those victimized as children currently can file suits for damages until their 19th birthday. The bill would extend the time in which they could sue to age 38.

Some fear victims may be able under the bill to seek damages against institutions that allowed abuse to occur. The Catholic church, for instance, could be vulnerable because of the clergy abuse scandal.

The statute of limitations for criminal proceedings would not change.

California passed a law that allowed victims to file civil suits within a one-year period.

When Margaret Stephens started coming to terms with the violent sexual abuse inflicted on her as a child, she went to the police and sought an attorney.

But more than 20 years had passed since the abuse, so they advised her it was too late to do anything about it.

'I felt there was no justice here in Michigan,' said Stephens, now 42, of Macomb Township.

Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill that would open up a two-year window for Stephens and child sexual abuse victims like her to file civil lawsuits against their attackers. While the bill, similar to a law passed in California, could give victims some recourse and an opportunity to come forward, some fear it also could have far-reaching ramifications for institutions such as the Catholic church in the shadows of the clergy abuse scandal.

State law requires child sexual abuse victims to seek civil damages from their accusers by their 19th birthday. But experts agree that most victims wait long into adulthood before even acknowledging the crime, so the deadline may close the door too early and allow many perpetrators to go unpursued.

Among the most vulnerable to this pending legislation could be the Roman Catholic Church.

While the bill doesn't specifically allow institutions associated with abuse to be sued during the window, church leaders are concerned about the bill's prospects.

California passed into law a similar bill that resulted in at least 800 lawsuits filed in 2003, and the majority of them were directed at the Catholic church. Experts say the California lawsuits, which were required to be filed in a one-year time period, will likely result in millions of dollars in payouts to victims.

If Michigan lawmakers open a two-year window on civil suits, 'it takes what California did and doubles it,' said Paul Long of the Michigan Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's Catholic church.

'We are still evaluating and reviewing the legislation,' Long said. 'We have concerns about its constitutionality and whether this is really the best way to assist and help victims.'

Recognition lags

Advocates of those who were sexually abused as minors say it often takes years for victims to recognize that a crime has been committed against them, and by that time, the legal time clock when they can seek civil damages has run out.

'Most of our perpetrators have moved onto a new generation of victims by the time we are able to come forward,' said Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, which has been lobbying lawmakers to pass this bill.

The bill, sponsored by a Republican, has had one hearing in the House committee and another hearing hasn't been scheduled. A similar bill, sponsored by a Democrat, has been proposed in the Senate that would completely abolish the statute of limitations. It hasn't had a hearing.

Neither bill would impact the statute of limitations on criminal proceedings for the worst cases of sexual abuse, which was six years before 2001, when lawmakers eliminated the limit.

State Sen. Alan Sanborn, R-Richmond, believes the Michigan Legislature likely will eventually pass a law that changes the time line when civil claims can be filed by child victims of sexual abuse. But exactly how remains to be seen.

'Everybody here is sympathetic to people who have been victimized by child molesters,' said Sanborn, who sits on the committee where the Senate bill is assigned. 'Nobody in the Legislature wants to protect child molesters.'

It is a bill that could feasibly pass into law, added Bill Ballenger, editor of the Lansing-based newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

'The reports of sexual abuse not just within the Catholic church, but generally, have been so widespread and so intense over the last couple years,' said Ballenger, adding that this might give lawmakers a reason to grant victims an avenue for seeking restitution.

Lori Derusha, a former resident of Menominee, Mich., said she was fondled and preyed upon by a teacher from age 8 until age 10, when he raped her in his home with his wife and children in the next room. The teacher threatened to kill her and her parents if she ever told anyone.

The trauma of this experience manifested itself in Derusha's life through depression, eating disorders and suicide attempts. But it wasn't until her father died in 1999 that she began realizing the source of her inner turmoil was the abuse the teacher inflicted on her. By then, there was nothing she could do.

Derusha, now 40 and a resident of Santa Fe, N.M., recently testified before the committee reviewing the bill.

'Putting my head on the pillow every night, knowing he's still out there raping girls, it's difficult to sleep a solid night of sleep,' Derusha said.

Michigan law isn't adequate for victims to grapple with what happened to them as children, said Noelle Clark, a Southfield-based psychologist who has worked with numerous child sexual abuse victims.

'The effects are subtle, poisonous and latent,' Clark said. 'A lot of people don't deal with it for decades.'

Bills touted elsewhere

Besides opening a two-year window, the proposed legislation would also extend the statute of limitations for future child sexual abuse victims to age 38.

'The current set of rules seems inadequate and don't take into consideration the needs of the victims,' said Rep. Steve Ehardt, R-Lexington, and chief sponsor of the bill. 'What we have today does not work.'

Many states, Ehardt said, have laws that don't even start the statute of limitations until the person has remembered the molestation.

'This is our best attempt at solving the problem in Michigan,' Ehardt said.

Some states with statutes of limitation similar to Michigan's have also tried to open up a window or are in the process of changing the law.

A proposed law in Florida failed earlier this month for the second year in a row.

Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, Fla., pointed blame at the religious communities, which she said worked to stop it from coming into law.

'They are at greater risk,' Gannon said.

Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest, says the church should look beyond protecting its assets and see the more profound value that laws like these could bring.

'It is tremendously important,' said Sipe, a La Jolla, Calif., author who has served as an expert witness in nearly 200 lawsuits filed against the church throughout the country. 'It validates victims and it reduces the tremendous fear victims have of confronting not only their abuser but the church. By extending the statute of limitations, it gives people a chance to stand up with some hope of being heard even if they don't want to bring a case, it validates their position and the truth of what happened.

'That's very important not only for the church but for the country in the problem of sexual abuse.'

You can reach Kim Kozlowski at (313) 222-2024 or


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