Shield from Lawsuits Targeted
Proposal Would End Immunity for Schools in Sex-Abuse Cases

By Jean Torkelson
Rocky Mountain News [Colorado]
February 9, 2006

Two Republican lawmakers said Wednesday that they would be willing to co-sponsor a bill to eliminate "sovereign immunity" for public schools in sexual-abuse cases against children.

State Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, and state Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, said they would back a late bill if it could be added to the docket.

But that would require the permission from one of two Democrats, Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald or House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, which is considered a significant hurdle for Republican lawmakers.

Fitz-Gerald said late Wednesday that she would have to think long and hard before she would consider late-bill status for the immunity proposal.

"I think there was a reason we had sovereign immunity because it was taxpayer dollars and you can't bankrupt (public institutions)," she said.

If the late-bill strategy doesn't work, Gardner said he has drafted an amendment to a sexual abuse bill already in the process that would allow its scope to include public entities and lifting the "governmental immunity" provisions.

Romanoff said late Wednesday he would prefer to consider the proposal via the amendment route, although he wouldn't rule out late-bill status because legislative leaders shouldn't "make the calendar the enemy of good policy."

The Colorado Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church, also is seeking late bill support.

"This crosses party lines," Gardner said. "If our intent is truly to protect children, then we shouldn't be treating public and private entities differently."

Public institutions are currently exempt from severe penalties related to sexual abuse cases - a fact that Archbishop Charles Chaput and the Colorado Catholic Conference have declared is "unfair, unequal and prejudicial."

By contrast, the church, and other private nonprofits, could be heavily affected by three current bills that seek to remove the statute of limitations on all sexual abuse cases, even those decades old.

Senate bill 143 would also allow suits to go forward even if the perpetrator is dead.

Chaput has argued in a series of open letters to his 375,000-member flock that public institutions should be treated equally and that it appears "some Colorado legislators seem determined to be harsh when it comes to Catholic and other private institutions."

Mitchell said it was important to make the system work for childhood victims "not just of priests and other private actors, but of public school teachers and other school employees."

Governmental immunity, also called sovereign immunity, shields public entities from lawsuits or greatly restricts the penalties.

Currently, a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct against a minor at a public institution must be filed within 180 days of the offense and damages are capped at $150,000.


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