LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan bill inspired by the Larry Nassar scandal that would retroactively extend the amount of time child victims of sexual abuse have to sue their abusers is drawing concerns from the Catholic Church, which has paid out billions of dollars to settle U.S. clergy abuse cases.
Michigan Catholic Conference spokesman Dave Maluchnick confirmed Tuesday that extending the statute of limitations is “of concern” to the church’s lobbying arm, but he withheld further comment until the bill’s impact could be fully reviewed. He said the group supports other parts of a 10-bill package introduced Monday, including a measure that would add more people to the list of those who must report suspected abuse to child protective services.
A state Senate panel quickly passed the measure later Tuesday, a day after Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Jordyn Wieber and other Nassar accusers and victims helped unveil the bills at the Capitol.
Currently, people who are sexually abused as children in Michigan generally have until their 19th birthdays to sue. Under the legislation , child victims could sue until their 48th birthdays while those assaulted in adulthood would have 30 years to file a claim from the time of the abuse.
Past bills to give victims more access to the legal system have stalled in Michigan, partly because of opposition from the Catholic Conference. Advocates for change say giving victims just a year to sue after turning 18 protects child molesters because survivors often wait to report the abuse due to fear or because they repressed it.
“The harsh reality is that in most cases, survivors of sexual assault are too deeply traumatized to be able to speak out and pursue justice until decades later,” Rachael Denhollander, a Nassar victim, told members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. She said the median ages for women and men to disclose abuse from childhood are 41 and 38.
“This means that by the time a survivor is able to speak and to seek help, by the time justice could be done against their abuser, the avenues of justice both criminally and civilly have completely cut off — and not because the evidence isn’t there but because of a legal technicality.
She challenged arguments that extending the statute of limitations would make it too easy to hold innocent parties’ liable because so much time has passed.
It “does not alter the evidentiary code. It does not alter the burden of proof,” Denhollander said.
In the mid-2000s, Michigan courts ruled that men who said they had been molested by priests decades earlier had waited too long to sue. The plaintiffs and victims’ rights advocates turned to the Republican-controlled Legislature for help, but the legislation died.
The Nassar scandal could lead to change, however, as both Republicans and Democrats are backing the new bills. Nassar, a Michigan State University sports physician who also worked for USA Gymnastics, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, on top of a 60-year federal term for possessing child pornography. Among his more than 250 accusers are several U.S. Olympians and the case has drawn worldwide attention.
It is unclear if the statute of limitations or others bills could be revised.
Republican state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said that the Catholic Church is concerned that the statute of limitations bill could “open up other things that have been closed,” and “I think they have some valid concerns.” He declined to say if he wants to amend the legislation, though.