Bill would remove statute of limitations for child sex abuse lawsuits

Santa Fe New Mexican

January 25, 2022

By Rick Ruggles

Another try at lifting the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases sits in limbo in the Legislature.

A bill introduced by Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, would remove restrictions on how long a victim of such abuse has to file a lawsuit. Many experts say statutes that narrowly limit the time survivors of child abuse have to sue a perpetrator or an organization are unfair because it takes many victims years to acknowledge or come to terms with the abuse.

“This bill seeks to ensure that the trauma that survivors endure no longer outlives their ability to access the justice they deserve,” Duhigg wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon.

The Legislature’s webpage said the bill, which applies to civil and not criminal cases, has been referred to the Senate Committees Committee. Other efforts to alter the statute of limitations in these cases have been made as recently as 2019 and 2020, but haven’t passed.

Suzanne Cully, who lives in the Albuquerque area, said she was 8 when she was sexually abused by a priest, the Rev. Walter Cassidy. Cully, 64, said she is one of more than 400 victims in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case that aims to settle with those victims in a lump sum.

She said she told a nurse about the incidents about 16 years ago.

Cully said she would have sued some time ago, “but I couldn’t do it because of the statute of limitations.”

Cassidy, who died in 1994, is among close to 80 priests, deacons and others in clergy-related positions listed by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe as having been accused of child sexual abuse. The archdiocese says the priest was accused by boys and girls.

“Kids need to be able to take the time it takes to come to terms with it,” Cully said. “It’s one of those things that gets so buried deep within you.”

The statute currently limits filing a lawsuit for child sexual abuse to the latest of either the victim’s 24th birthday or three years from the date the victim discussed the incident with a health care provider.

The proposed bill would be retroactive and would apply to cases not pending, regardless of the date of the abuse and regardless of whether the statute of limitations expired before the effective date of the bill.

An Albuquerque attorney who represents about 140 survivors with his law partner in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case said there is a movement nationwide to remove or lengthen statutes of limitations in these cases.

The attorney, Levi Monagle, said the bill dovetails with tough-on-crime legislation currently advocated by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and some legislators.

Monagle said the legislation, Senate Bill 117, gives organizations a financial reason to protect children. By lifting the statute of limitations, it increases the likelihood those organizations would be named in civil cases if abuses were perpetrated by their employees, he said.

“I have spoken with Senator Duhigg and encouraged her in her advocacy on behalf of the bill,” Monagle said.

But as it stands, he said, “This bill is not aimed at the archdiocese case.”

Monagle said the archdiocese hasn’t tried to use the statute of limitations in the bankruptcy case. If it did, he said, that would hinder negotiating a settlement.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said in this 30-day session, the bill would need a “message” from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to gain traction. A message hadn’t been delivered as of Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s going to be a limited session,” Ely said. “The bottom line is, we need a message.”

Ely said he has been involved in past efforts on this matter and is involved in this one. He added he wasn’t criticizing the governor because the agenda “has to be short” in 30-day sessions and that “a lot of worthy things” aren’t taken up.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the governor “is currently focused on her priority legislation items, centered on education, public safety, and economic growth. That being said, we continue to have conversations with legislative leadership and legislators as the session progresses.”

Under the proposal, a lawsuit previously barred or dismissed because of the statute of limitations may be filed no sooner than six months after and no later than 30 months after May 28, 2022.

The bill doesn’t apply to claims that already have been litigated to their conclusion before May 28.

The organization Child USA, based in Philadelphia, says on its website that as of last year, 18 states and Washington, D.C., had altered their statutes of limitations in these cases to allow victims more time.

“It’s time to drop the three-year statute of limitations,” Suzanne Cully said. “We need to do this.”