After infighting, Colorado lawmakers revive effort to give child sex assault survivors unlimited time to sue abusers

Colorado Sun [Denver CO]

February 25, 2021

By Jesse Paul

A similar effort last year failed after proponents of the legislation couldn’t agree about whether to challenge the state constitution in the hopes of giving past victims of abuse a window to take legal action

olorado lawmakers are once again debating whether to give recent and future victims of child sexual assault unlimited time to sue their abusers after a similar effort failed last year because of infighting among proponents of the policy change. 

Senate Bill 73 cleared its first hurdle on Wednesday, unanimously passing the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Victims of child sexual assault have just six years after they turn 18 to sue their abusers. The bipartisan legislation would eliminate that restriction. The measure would apply to people abused after Jan. 1, 2022, as well as for those still within the window of the statute of limitations by that date.

A companion measure, Senate Bill 88, seeks to give past child sex abuse victims an opportunity to sue their abusers and institutions that failed to intervene.

“Colorado is way behind on statute of limitation reform for survivors of child sexual abuse,” said Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat and prime sponsor of the measures. “These bills are the result of a decades-long struggle to bring some healing and justice to the survivor community. It’s time that we get it done.” 

Jill Brogdon testified Wednesday that she was 12 years old when she was abused by a Colorado teacher who knew about the civil statute of limitations. He threatened her to “keep her mouth shut until at least 10 years after I turned 18.”

“I did as I was told on the fear of retaliation,” she said.

The two bills come against the backdrop of political drama that unfolded at the statehouse last year after backers of the policy change failed to agree about whether and how to give victims of child sex abuse an avenue to file lawsuits against their abusers years after the abuse happened. 

The holdup was over a “look-back window” that would have given those victims a period of time to take legal action for abuse they suffered years ago. Other states, like Pennsylvania, have created such an opportunity to allow survivors of historic abuse by Catholic priests to file lawsuits.

The Colorado legislature’s lawyers, however, warned lawmakers that such a window in the Centennial State would likely violate the state constitution and that the measure could be tossed out in court. The Colorado constitution says that once a statute of limitation has been passed, a case cannot be brought even if there is a change in the law. 

Some wanted to try for the window anyway, which led to the measure’s demise.

“I’m not willing to pass a bill that lets perpetrators off the hook,” Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, said during a committee hearing last year as she asked for her own piece of legislation to be rejected. “I will not settle for watered-down justice. I believe we have to do better. All victims of sexual assault deserve to see their abusers held accountable.”

(For criminal cases, there is no statute of limitations for child sex assault in Colorado, though children are defined under state law as being age 14 or younger.)

The death of the 2020 legislation shocked and angered many victims and victims advocacy groups.  This year, proponents of the look-back window are not involved.

“We’re not working together, no,” said Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican who is working on both Senate bills 73 and 88. “Definitely not.”

But that doesn’t mean lawmakers aren’t still trying to give victims of abuse in years past a way to take legal action against their abusers.

“There was always an appetite to try to address the decades-old, well-documented history of child sexual abuse and insittutional cover up in Colorado,” said Raana Simmons, public affairs director for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “The problem, I think, was just how do we do it.” 

That’s where Senate Bill 88 comes in. It’s seen as a compromise that aids survivors of historic abuse while giving institutions the ability to right their wrongs in a way that the sponsors feel doesn’t violate the constitution. It also won’t threaten the effort to eliminate the statute of limitations going forward because it’s totally totally separate legislation.

The measure would create a new civil right allowing victims to sue their abusers and organizations “that knew or should have known that a (person) or youth program posed a risk of sexual misconduct against a minor.”

However, organizations are immune from damages if they:

  • Took reasonable action to address the risk of sexual misconduct against a minor
  • Conducted an evaluation to determine if that action was effective 
  • Adequately warned families about the risk of sexual misconduct against a minor 

“If the institution has taken steps upon finding out that perhaps they had in the past harbored sexual predators and, say, they had set up a trust fund to be able to help compensate victims or if they provide evidence to law enforcement, then they have immunity from this new civil right,” said Soper.

The Catholic Church in Colorado would likely be immune, Soper said, because of the steps it has taken to prevent further abuse by priests and its agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to a lengthy investigation into child sex abuse allegations over the past seven decades.

“They would have immunity, would be my guess,” Soper said. 

Soper, Danielson and other lawmakers working the legislation, including Democratic Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet of Commerce City, believe Senate Bill 88 will pass constitutional muster because they are creating a new law as opposed to amending an old one.

“There is no equivalent to it in Colorado law,” Soper said. “It’s entirely new.”

Simmons, with the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, feels the legislation is narrowly tailored to adhere to the constitution. “What we landed on has not been introduced in any legislature in the country,” she said. “It’s a completely new idea.” 

Senate Bill 73 now heads to the full Senate for debate. Senate Bill 88 has not yet been scheduled for its first committee hearing.

There’s a feeling among victims advocates that after last year’s bumpy road they have a good chance of success this year, though Senate Bill 88 could be more difficult to get across the finish line.

“I’m an old racehorse trainer. I never entered a horse that I didn’t think could win the race,” said Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican working on the bills. “I’ve never introduced a bill that I didn’t think I could get across the line. I feel good about it.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 8:35 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2020 to correct the spelling of Jill Brodgon’s name.